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APA's Science Student Council (SSC) has presented four psychology graduate students with its third annual Early Research Awards-two each in applied and basic psychological research. The $1,000 prizes reward student research completed before the dissertation.

The basic research award winners are:

  • Nicholas Turk-Browne, a third-year doctoral student at Yale University. His research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging and psychophysics to explore cognitive processes such as visual statistical learning (VSL), in which humans compute statistical relationships among objects distributed in space and time and then store this detailed information without consciously thinking about it. Turk-Browne found that VSL is limited by attention, but nevertheless occurs without trying or even realizing that there are statistical regularities in the visual environment.

"Students are forced to take stats classes, and most of them hate the math," he says. "But the amazing thing is that under the surface, your brain is doing this math all the time without you being aware of it."

In addition, VSL does not simply result in knowledge about the world, says Turk-Browne, but actually helps humans predict and recognize incoming visual information.

  • Alexis Stranahan, a fourth-year cognitive psychology graduate student at Princeton University. She studies adult neurogenesis--or new neuron growth in the brain's hippocampus-by examining the interaction between social isolation and exercise in rats. Neurogenesis plays a role in learning capacity, memory and mood regulation, says Stranahan, and previous studies have found that exercise helps new neurons to grow.

Stranahan counted the number of new neurons added to the brains of normally social rats that ran on a wheel either while housed alone or in groups. She found that the socially isolated rats took, on average, 48 days to generate new neurons, versus 12 days for the rats housed in groups.

"In the human population, quite a few studies demonstrate that having a social network will improve wound healing and increased mental health," says Stranahan. "This study shows that social support can make or break the effect of a positive experience like exercise whether the subject is a human or a rat."

The applied research winners are:

  • Eyitayo Onifade, a third-year community psychology graduate student at Michigan State University who studies the risk assessment of juvenile offenders. "A small portion of youth commit the majority of crimes," he says. "Out of 100 crimes committed a year by 20 juvenile offenders, five of the 20 offenders will commit 85 percent of the offenses." He's identified eight domains of risk factors--and a system for assessing them--to determine which teens are likely to repeatedly offend.

The combination of risk factors, rather than the number, determines an offender's risk for recidivism, he says. After probation officers assess offending juveniles using Onifade's system, they channel the lower-risk teens to an informal program and the higher-risk offenders to a more intensively monitored program-a decision that Onifade says used to be arbitrary.

"We are diverting low-risk kids away from system," says Onifade. "It's not the offense we are going to be making the [probation] decision on, but the likelihood of their committing another offense."

  • Evan Apfelbaum, a third-year doctoral student at Tufts University, who studies the interpersonal strategies people use to avoid appearing prejudiced.

By asking participants to play a matching game similar to "Guess Who?" Apfelbaum found that when white participants play with black participants, white people will generally not mention race as a descriptive characteristic of the people on the game cards, although such a descriptor would help them win the game. Although white people are attempting to appear nonbiased by not mentioning race, this strategic colorblindness backfires, says Apfelbaum.

"Ironically, the black people thought that the whites who avoided talking about race--those individuals most motivated to avoid appearing prejudiced--were actually more biased," he says.

Apfelbaum has begun working in Boston-area elementary schools to explore when children start to learn that talking about race is something they shouldn't do, and he's developing workshops to teach children when and how to talk about race.

-E. Packard


For more information on how to apply for the 2007 SSC Early Researcher Awards, visit Early Researcher Award or call the Science Directorate at (202) 336-6000. The application deadline is July 15.

Remember to vote!

The ballot period for the 2007 APAGS elections is this month. APAGS members can read candidate statements and vote online at the APAGS Web site.