– Christian Lous Lange, Nobel Peace Prize Winner 1921
For more than a hundred years, there’s been great interest and great concern over the effects of technology on the human mind and, therefore, on human behavior. Indeed, this is the subject of current LTU psychology program research.
Dr. Franco Delogu, associate professor and director of the psychology program, said, “The attention to the human mind, to mental problems, in the last year is really amazing. We’re seeing a lot of people who have lost the coordinates of their lives, especially adolescents and the elderly.
Psychology, which involves every person on the planet, is everywhere. It’s in the use of objects, in the way we drive a car, in the way we compare ourselves to others, and in the way we buy stuff. We have seen that people are in desperate need of help! In fact, I believe that the main scope of psychology is to provide people with the support they need, especially in difficult times like the present ones.”
At LTU, where the emphasis is on technology, the psychology program conducts research into human behavior in conjunction with other disciplines like architecture, biomedical engineering, and computer science. Because psychology at LTU is a small program, it’s, of necessity, an interdisciplinary program. Delogu said, “Our mind is 70,000 years old, or older. In the span of human history, it’s only recently that we’re bombarded with ‘smart’ refrigerators, Nest systems in our homes that regulate everything, GPS so we don’t even know how to get home on our own! We have really changed the way we interact with our environment and that creates misunderstanding between the old mind and the new environment. All of us here are feeling like we need to help people!” he said.
– Dr. Hamad Al-Azary
Technological innovation can also be instrumental to make life better. Delogu submitted a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant application in conjunction with the University of Texas and Stanford University in which cloud computing technology is used to broaden access to the highest quality human data science education, especially in historically marginalized students. Dr. Hamad Al-Azary , assistant professor of psychology in the Department of Humanities, Social Science, and Communications, is spearheading a collaboration with computer science colleague, Dr. Paula Lauren to extract the data collected on the trends in language use on social media. In the early stages of preparing their grant request, Al-Azary said, “We will be using computational methods to characterize how people talk about issues on social media, like politics, versus how such issues are discussed in other sources, such as news or academic sources. This research will shed light on the subtle ways social media influences and frames people's understanding of issues, and how nuances in the language used by people in social media may trigger user engagement and behavior. Thus, we will employ computational psycholinguistic methods to help us answer questions such as ‘How is information on social media different than other sources?’ We anticipate that topics in social media are much more associated with emotions (both positive and negative) than other sources. This creates more heated debate around issues on social media, and keeps users more actively engaged on the platforms.
“Together with our students, we’ll explore how people interact with social media, how people are compelled to give more data about themselves that they really don’t know that they’re sharing,” Al-Azary added.
Psychology seniors Ava Cole and Dana Vulaj have been working with Al-Azary as research assistants since the summer of 2021, taking on a project that will carry over this year. From his class titled “Metaphor, Cognition and Communication” emerged a unique study on the use of memes, a term that’s been around for years but has become popular in social media. A meme is anything that is shared within a culture; in the world of social media, it means images with accompanying text. These researchers want to know how we interpret and understand memes the same way we do metaphors. Cole and Vulaj presented their work to the MASAL (Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters) conference in March 2022.
“I have a passion for research!” said Cole. “This project helped me learn and understand how to collect data and learn about getting research subjects’ consent to participate in research. I can’t wait to see what happens” when they actually get to analyze the data they collect.
Vulaj, whose academic and career interest is the development of morals, also loves research. Experiences such as this current project “sets you up for graduate school,” she explained. “As an undergrad to have this practical research experience is a unique opportunity!”
Exciting for LTU students is the opportunity to be exposed to all the nuances of psychology. Psychology is foundational at LTU. Many students learn the basics of psychology as psychology is a very popular subject for elective courses among students of any major. Several programs also include introductory psychology courses as part of their curricula. Dr. Matthew Cole, associate professor in the College of Business and Information Technology and former psychology program director, incorporates psychological principles into his teaching of Human Resource Management and Principles of Management. “When the College of Arts and Sciences received its grant from HHMI to support LTU’s CRE (Course-based Research Experience) initiative ( See CRE story in this edition ), I took the opportunity to introduce CRE in my Human Resource Management course. In this way, I maintain a link with my psychology colleagues. I also teach all LTU students Organizational Psychology, which helps all of us learn how to function in today’s society and workplace,” he said. This collaborative relationship has the full support of Dean Srini Kambhampati of the College of Arts and Sciences and Dean Bahman Mirshab of the College of Business and Informational Technology, respectively.
Dr. Kineta Morgan-Paisley, senior lecturer and psychology program advisor whose area of interest involves social media analysis, heartily agrees with the positive impact of CRE on LTU students. She said, “With our commitment to CRE, our undergraduate students are exposed to original research, design and conduct original research, and have the experience of having their work peer-reviewed and published!” They get research experience as a matter of course, and at the undergraduate level, which is a unique and career-advancing benefit of LTU’s program.
– Dr. Kineta Morgan-Paisley
First-year psychology student Maliea May said, “Not only did the experience change my perception of research as ‘a lot of work,’ but I learned how to record and analyze eye movements and their relation to many aspects of cognition.” Even in her first year of study, May has already become a leading expert at LTU on the emerging and exciting eye-tracking technology. Drawn to LTU from her home country of Canada with the chance to play soccer and study psychology, two loves of her life, May has presented the results of her study on Research Day, accepted research assistant internships with Delogu, and truly now sees herself as a practicing clinical psychologist one day. “I’m grateful for these opportunities. They’ve opened many doors for me. What’s really cool is that, as an undergrad, I get to do important research that is integrated into my coursework,” she said.
In her third year, nursing student Chantol Aspinall took Behavioral Neuroscience as an elective. She had no idea how this could possibly relate to nursing or what lies ahead for her. Aspinall became the team lead to study how many different behavior and mental processes are associated with different parts of the brain using Brain Life, cloud computing platform that allows researchers to process actual brain imaging data from many openly accessible databases. She presented the results at LTU’s Research Day, and their team took third place. “It was so cool that we novice students were taking this gigantic platform to see if we could replicate the anatomical and functional images contained in one of the data sets. Even more exciting was when it all populated, the last image showed us how all parts of the brain are linked together,” Aspinall exclaimed. She wrote a paper chronicling the research that was submitted to bioRxiv, an open access preprint repository for the biological sciences. Delogu expects it will also be submitted for peer review.
Morgan-Paisley further explained that LTU has a diverse population of students in the psychology program. As their advisor, she makes sure that they will have the right research experience, the right internship experience, which she believes is critical to a student's future career goals.
From its beginnings with only six students to its current 35 students, Delogu has a bright vision for continued growth of LTU’s psychology program. “We hope to integrate, to build a program that is experimental in nature as well as technologically and clinically oriented so that our students, when they leave our university, will be able to help people be the best humans they can be.”
by Renée Ahee