Psychology Research Experience Program gets students into the lab and builds undergraduate confidence

When you think of summer in Madison, you may picture leisurely afternoons with Babcock ice cream on the Terrace or a long run out to Picnic Point. But for a few undergraduates from across the country, summer in Madison is more aptly defined by weekly data-science boot camps and long days in the lab. Think that sounds intense? It is.

Now in its eighth year with National Science Foundation funding, the Psychology Research Experience Program (PREP) at UW–Madison engages select undergraduates from historically underrepresented populations in 10 weeks of mentored laboratory research, technical skill trainings, and professional development.

PREP 2019 students with PREP alumni this summer

PREP applicants are students like University of Maryland, College Park senior Miles Stroud who have expressed an interest in a career in scientific psychology. After reading an article about cognition deficits based on socioeconomic status sparked his interest in all the variables that affect cognition, healthy psychological development, and sustained mental health, he “couldn’t help but get in on the action with research.” Over the 10 weeks he spent researching social support, strain, and the aging brain in Professor Richard Davidson’s lab, Center for Healthy Minds, Stroud says he felt confident in his research abilities for the first time.

“I think confidence is maybe the most overt change that we see over the course of the summer,” says Brad Postle, professor and PREP director. “When the students first arrive, they are eager and enthusiastic, but many also have a great deal of trepidation about how they will fit in or whether they’ll be able to contribute in a substantive way to the research of their host lab.

“By the end of the summer they’ve learned a lot about the science, of course, but also many, many things that they didn’t know about the culture and the unwritten rules about how to be a scientist; things like how federal funding works, what are socially acceptable ways to proactively seek out opportunities for further training, what most professors are really looking for when they are considering applications for graduate programs, how to give an ‘elevator pitch’ about research one has carried out and/or about the research questions that one is hoping to tackle in the future. On the last day, to a person, they boss their symposium presentation and are visibly and justifiably proud of what they’ve learned and accomplished in just 10 weeks.”

Whether they’re working in labs researching social norms and their influence on intergroup attitudes and behaviors or making machine-assisted predictions on alcohol use disorder severity from Facebook, PREP students have the opportunity to make core contributions to their labs. And what makes the program stand out even more is the students’ interactions with the LUCID community—psychologists, computer scientists, and engineers with overlapping interests in learning, understanding, cognition, intelligence, and data science. It is LUCID faculty and graduate trainees who lead the data-science boot camps.

“I appreciated the new data science aspect of the program this year,” says Kendra Paquette, psychology major at California State University, Fullerton. “Coding and data analysis are real-world skills that will benefit us in all areas of our future research goals.”

In addition, this summer’s cohort profited from the inaugural PREP alumni mentor component in which PREP alumni who remain active in academic science (over half of the alumni) are paired with current participants to provide support and encouragement. During the final week of the program, alumni mentors return to the UW to showcase their own doctoral research at the Elucid8 conference, following the presentation of research from PREP participants.

“It was such a gratifying and affirming moment for us to see how impressively successful these alumni of our program have become, “says Postle.

Applications are now being accepted for PREP 2020 until February 15, 2020. Learn more here.