The Social and Behavioral Development Lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison investigates genetic and environmental factors that contribute to individual differences in the development of child ADHD and other externalizing disorders. Two of the lab’s students, Sheyenne Tung x’20 and Zach Gestrich ’19, spoke with us about their experience as research assistants. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
UWPsych: Both of you are pursuing independent research projects in James Li’s lab. How did that come about?
Zach: James is always encouraging people to do a project. It’s on us just to say, ‘I have an idea, what do you think about it?’ He gets really excited. [Both laugh.] But it’s on us to start our own.
My project is on neighborhood disadvantage. Last year, I attended a Waisman Center Day with the Experts where they presented on the neighborhood deprivation index. Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has previously been linked to parental stress and lower socioeconomic status (SES), so I intend to use the neighborhood deprivation index as a measure of SES that takes into account the effects of the environment, or your neighborhood. The goal is to explain the relationship between parental stress, SES, ADHD symptomatology, and other potential mediating factors.
Sheyenne: My junior year, I was talking with James about my hesitancy about medical school and he asked me if I’d thought about grad school or research. So he encouraged me to do an independent project. I was thinking about negative parenting and how that can exacerbate ADHD over time, so he encouraged me to apply to the Undergraduate Research Symposium. It was fun to collect data, put it all together, have graphs and be able to talk about what I did and the impacts of what I did in a presentation, but it was hard because I was trying to do a longitudinal project.
Going into this year, I wanted to continue something along the lines of my project. So my project [which will be presented at a virtual Undergraduate Research Symposium] now looks at how ADHD is associated with social skill impairments and how it can be mediated by certain factors. So, for example, if we know that a kid has greater negative affect and ADHD, we can improve their social skills. If we know that negative parenting is a factor, we can target parenting interventions to alleviate stress or provide parenting models.
We’re also taking a more genetically informed approach and examining polygenic risk scores, which tell you how a person’s risk compares to others with a different genetic constitution. A polygenic risk score could be a marker or a predictor, so that early intervention could make more of an impact. It’s still new and we’re testing the predictive ability of using these scores.
UWPsych: How has your involvement in this lab in particular and research in general influenced what’s next for you?
Zach: Once I’m in med school, I think I’ll figure it out. I’d be interested in working with kids with ADHD. Doing the child assessments is my favorite part because they’re funny and they say and do funny things. I appreciate the amount of effort they give to stay on task.
Sheyenne: Like Zach said, kids are my favorite group of people. They’re funny, adorable, awesome. I’ve considered psychiatry, but no matter what I end up doing, research has shaped a big part of my life. I think there’s a big gap between creating research and putting that research into everyday lives. I definitely want to keep up with research in whatever I do.
UWPysch: When you reflect on your career at the UW, what are some of the most meaningful experiences you had?
Zach: I passed Organic Chemistry (laughs).
Sheyenne: Being in this lab, working with kids, participating in research. I’ve also been a tutor with the Center for Academic Excellence for the past three years and that’s opened my eyes to the challenges many of my fellow students face. I also volunteer with the Biocore Undergraduate Outreach Ambassadors through which I run an after-school science club in Mazomanie with fourth and fifth graders trying to push inquiry-based learning. That’s also impacted my interest in working with kids.
Zach: This lab has had a huge impact from James’s mentorship to the things he’s exposed me to, like precision medicine. It’s cool to know where the field is going. I also volunteered in the diagnostic and therapy section of the children’s hospital with kids who were there for sickle cell or cancer treatment, trying to take their minds off what was happening. And I’m proud of myself because my GPA has continually improved every semester even though the classes were getting harder.
UWPsych: What advice do you have to students considering a psychology degree?
Sheyenne: Psych classes are hands-down my favorite. They’re a lot of fun. And I liked the interplay between psychology and neurobiology. My favorite class was Hormone, Brain and Behaviors with professors Marler and Auger. I learned how hormonal and biological factors can influence behavior.
Zach: You can do anything with a psych major. It covers so many topics. I like that they have their depth and core and breadth topics and you have to take each one, because there were so many things I learned. I wouldn’t have taken the emotions class, but I really enjoyed it. And I think the psychology field leads the medical field in terms of pushing the mental health agenda since mental health has a huge impact on your physical health.
UWPysch: Thank you both for taking time to share your experiences today!