Summer research: From Appleton to Madison

This summer, three students from Lawrence University exchanged the Fox River for Lake Mendota and became temporary Badgers. They were part of a pilot program designed to provide Lawrence undergraduates the opportunity to work with researchers at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

With support from grants from Lawrence University, Katie Taber, Anna Kim and Vijayashree Krishnan spent their summer conducting research with Waisman investigators Leann Smith, Ed Hubbard and Kristin Shutts, respectively.

Working Together with individuals with autism spectrum disorder

With prior research experience under her belt while at Lawrence, Taber “was able to jump in right away and start working in the lab,” says Smith. “That speaks to the quality of the education and research training she received while at Lawrence.”

Smith’s research – as part of the Waisman Lifespan Family Research Program – focuses on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) throughout the lifespan. Taber was involved with the Working Together program – an educational and support program for young adults with ASD and their families to help them transition from relatively structured school environments to the more chaotic adult world.

“I was able to take my previous research experience to the next level and do more hands-on work, such as learning how to work with families, developing content and implementing interventions, collecting data surrounding those interventions and having a better understanding of how the research system as a whole works,” says Taber.

Being able to collaborate and learn from individuals with more experience was particularly valuable for Taber. “Working with graduate students, postdocs, and scientists who have worked in special education for years and years has given me a better sense of what I am passionate about and a broader picture of the world,” she says.

“It has been a lovely opportunity to have Katie working with us through the summer,” says Smith. “I can’t say enough good things about her!”

A fraction in neuroscience

Having finished her freshman year at Lawrence this May, Kim started the summer “with no idea how a research lab works.” Since then, her work in Hubbard’s Educational Neuroscience Lab has allowed her “to learn many aspects of the research process.”

Kim has been involved in a project to better understand how our brains handle the concept of fractions. Turns out, fractions are not only difficult for many people, but various studies have also shown that children who struggle to understand fractions in 5th grade, struggle with algebra when they get to 8th grade. “So, it’s a predictor, even when we account for other factors, for math achievement,” says Hubbard, who is also an assistant professor in the UW-Madison School of Education.

In a project newly funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Development, Hubbard is now using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to learn more about how second-eighth-graders learn fractions and how it impacts their future learning in math. Kim has worked with research volunteers for this study, learned what is involved in taking MRI images of participants and how a scan works. “The next step for me is to learn how to analyze the data and process it using computers,” she says.

Providing research opportunities to undergraduate students is a no-brainer for Hubbard. “It’s directly tied to the Wisconsin Idea, that what we are doing here at UW-Madison should extend beyond the boundaries of just our campus and include the whole state,” he says. “Instead of thinking that somehow, magically the fruits of our efforts will diffuse out through the state, we can be active.”

Social Kids at the mall

When Krishnan started in Shutts’s Social Kids Lab she didn’t expect to be spending time at the mall.

“We walked up to complete strangers, talked to them about the lab and then asked them if they would be interested in signing up their kids to be research participants,” says Krishnan. “It was nerve-wracking in the beginning but I think I did a good job.”

She did indeed. “VJ recruited the highest number of families!” says Shutts. “She is excited about the research, she cares about it and she is very good at explaining it.”

Krishnan did more than recruit research volunteers. She had the opportunity to learn new computer programs and skills, such as animation. “I think these are skills that I can use in many different places, and considering that the world is so much more technologically driven nowadays, these are definitely relevant skills for me to learn,” she says.

For Shutts, who is also an associate professor in the psychology department at UW-Madison, having undergraduate researchers from different institutions is a win-win. “It’s really nice to have a different perspective in the lab, for someone to come in and offer fresh insights into the kinds of problems we are working on,” says Shutts. “It’s also fun for UW-Madison students to meet someone who goes to a different college or university and compare notes and experiences.”

An education for life

Of course, it is difficult to provide research opportunities to students without funding. As Hubbard says, “we can throw open our lab doors for students but if they can’t eat, it’s not much use.”

Funding for all three students was provided by Lawrence University through the Chester J. Hill, Jr. Memorial Fund and the Summer Research Fund.

Additional support came from John and Sally Mielke, longstanding members of the Appleton community and of the Appleton Education Foundation (AEF), a non-profit organization whose mission is to “creatively enhance education in our community.”

“We want to help educate the students and open the doors to what might be,” says John Mielke, who is on the board of directors at the AEF (and on the Waisman Center board of visitors). “Whether or not the students go into research, they will always have an appreciation of what it takes to do good research and what science is all about.”

By Adityarup “Rup” Chakravorty, Waisman Communications