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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Psychology professor Esteban Cardemil, along with students in his course Research in the Community, study the development and nature of depression in low-income and minority populations.

Meet the researchers: Research that matters

Interview with Alisha Pollastri (graduate student), Elaine Klein and Christopher Chianese
As participants in a research project headed by psychology professor Esteban Cardemil, graduate student Alisha Pollastri and psychology undergrads Elaine "Lainie" Klein '06 and Christopher Chianese '05 are studying depression in low-income, urban children. In a recent conversation, summarized below, they described their research.

Alisha, could you describe the project you're collaborating on?

This two-year study looks at factors that correlate with depressive symptoms in low-income, urban children in the 5th, 6th, and 7th grades. We're considering both cognitive factors--things within a child such as negative thought patterns, as well as contextual factors--things like life events and degree of parental support. For example, immigrant children in this setting might be more prone to depression because the process of moving to a new country is such a big change.

We're finishing up the second and final year of the study. Data has been collected on four occasions, approximately six months apart, over the two year period for students at four schools in Worcester, and four schools in Pawtucket, RI., near Providence.

How many children are participating?

We began with approximately 300, and that number has dropped to about 250. Urban populations tend to move around a lot, either out of town or simply into a different school district. That's one of the hardest things about working with this demographic.

What is your role in the project?

I'm Dr. Cardemil's graduate research assistant, and as such I've been managing the data collection and acting as liaison with the schools whose children are part of the study. The study is administered at the schools during school time. I'm also supervising eight undergraduate assistants this semester--last semester it was eleven--who help with the data collection.

Participating undergrads take Psychology 232: Research in the Community, and as part of the course are required to conduct their own research projects using data from the larger study. I help them with their individual projects. Lainie and Chris, along with Missy Holzbauer, were selected to present their own research at last week's Eastern Psychological Conference in Boston. They did an excellent job representing Clark.

When the undergrad assistants go into the schools, do they interview children or administer questionnaires?

The undergrads administer questionnaires. The children have filled out the same questionnaires four times over the course of two years. The questionnaires are designed to track symptoms of depression and anxiety, social support changes, and major life events like divorces, and deaths of parents or pets. The questionnaires also monitor the cognitive factors I mentioned earlier, such as a propensity to have negative automatic thoughts or to ruminate about bad thoughts.

I know the study is not yet complete, but are you noticing any trends in your results?

We've gotten some results that are consistent with previous research. Cognitive variables that in other populations often predict depression also predict depression in our sample population. But this sample is especially rich, because we look at factors like immigration status that might be less prevalent in a population of middle income white Americans. One of the more interesting findings of this study is that it is revealing some of the effects of being an immigrant child in an urban school.

The great thing about having undergraduates working so closely with us on this research is that they come up with great ideas of things to look at. In our class this semester, everyone with ideas has had the chance to go into the data and see how those ideas play out. And we've had some very interesting insights come from the undergraduates. Things we would have never thought to look at.

Does working together in a group enrich the research process in a way that working as a solitary researcher would not?

Absolutely. It's been a big life lesson for me as a researcher, seeing the way getting other people involved and talking together sparks ideas and gets people going. Last week in class, an idea we were talking about got so exciting that Professor Cardemil dashed out of class, ran some data, and came back with a printout of results, saying 'see it works'! That never would have happened if we hadn't been feeding off each other in a discussion.

Lainie, how did you get involved in this project?

I'm particularly interested in the topic of depression. I took Dr. Cardemil's Introduction to Abnormal Psychology course during the first semester of my sophomore year and learned that he conducted research on depression. After talking to him about it, I was very excited and decided to participate in the project this year.

What has been your role as an undergraduate assistant?

I helped with data collection and entry. Last semester I went several times to two different schools. The first few times Alisha came along to show us what had to be done. After that, two other students and I basically did it on our own. We gave the questionnaires to the students and helped them with any problems that they had. When that was done, we collected the questionnaires and entered the data into our computer database.

What is your personal research project about?

I'm particularly interested in the relationship between children's access to social support and depression. As part of the larger project we administered a questionnaire (the Survey of Children's Social Support (SOCSS)), designed to measure three sources of support: teacher, parental and peer. Children were asked to indicate, on a scale of one to five, the amount of support they got in different situations from each of these support sources. Whom do they go to for advice? Whom do they feel they can trust? We can then see what sources of support are most important to each individual child.

I looked at which types of social support correlated with the absence or presence of depression. I also looked at whether there were differences by gender and grade level. My results suggest that of these three types of support, a high level of peer support is the one most associated with lower levels of depression. This correlation was most apparent in 6th grade girls.

Chris, how did you get involved and what does your personal research question focus on?

I got involved with the project during its first year--my junior year. I've always been interested in the clinical aspect of psychology dealing with mental disorders, and this project was a major opportunity to get involved with that. I also like working with children.

I wanted to see whether participation in extracurricular activities influenced a child's likelihood of experiencing depression. Another student in the course, Missy Holzbauer, was interested in the relationship between children's household responsibilities and depression. We decided to combine our efforts and work together. We noticed project results indicating that children from single parent households report less peer support than children from two parent homes. Missy hypothesized that kids from single parent homes have more responsibility in the home, thus preventing them from engaging in the kinds of extracurricular activities that foster peer support. Our research suggests that children from single parent homes, who also have more responsibility at home, report higher levels of depression.

What are you both hoping to do when you leave Clark?

Chris : I'm going to enter Clark's 5th year free program and get a master's degree in education.

Lainie : I want to go to grad school, but I haven't yet decided between clinical social work or clinical psychology.

Can you offer any thoughts about the differences between learning in a research setting versus learning in a more traditional classroom situation?

Lainie : I enjoy the research very much. It's a very good experience. Some of my friends that go to bigger schools don't have this kind of research experience.

I definitely think that I have learned more--more like the research sense of interpreting data. I was very confused after taking statistics. Looking at data about readings seemed like totally a different language to me. I didn't understand what it meant. Now it totally makes sense to me. More hands on learning than someone telling you what "p" equals or what abstract concepts mean. It gives you a better knowledge of and feeling for what you're looking at after you directly experience it.

Chris: Being able to get out there and do research and work with the kids allows you to see that people actually do this research and it actually matters. Sitting in a classroom, you hear about all these studies, but to actually be a part of one has given me a different perspective. It's made me more comfortable with my decision to pursue an occupation within psychology.

Alisha : I'm amazed at the opportunities available to Clark undergraduates in psychology, and that they're able to get involved at this level. These undergrads are doing things, like presenting at conferences, that I didn't do until I got to graduate school. The only opportunity I had was as a work-study student in the psychology department. There were two positions available that everyone was scrambling for. At Clark, undergraduates have the opportunity to get involved in hands on research. They're really lucky--and they know it--because this doesn't happen everywhere. We're really setting them up well to go on, and what they're doing now is only going to help them.

This is really a great school and a great program, and I say that as someone who did her undergraduate program somewhere else—an excellent school also renowned for a great psychology program. But Clark offers more to the undergrads. And the focus on undergrads is important. You can be renowned for your psychology department, but often when it comes down to it you're talking about the graduate work that's going on. Here at Clark the focus is on both, the undergraduates and the graduate students. That's priceless.



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Clockwise from top left: Grad student Alisha Pollastri, Elaine Klein '06, Alisha assisting a student, and Christopher Chianese '05.

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