In the quest for research topics, many look beyond the walls of academe. Yet some psychologists have found that the major research questions that drive careers can be found much closer to home--in the classroom.
Such was the case for APA President Philip G. Zimbardo, PhD (see his column, page 5) whose groundbreaking research on shyness started with a student's question. Other high-profile researchers have had similar experiences, with some students' questions leading eventually to changes in practice, public policy or society at large.
Here's a closer look at a handful of researchers' experiences:
David Barlow, PhD
Professor of psychology and director, Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, Boston University
For Barlow, it began in the 1970s with a doctoral fellow's observation about patients' responses to a common agoraphobia treatment. Called situational exposure, the treatment incrementally exposes patients to the malls, movie theaters and other crowded places they fear. Barlow's student noticed that most patients seemed more afraid of the symptoms brought on by a place, than of the place itself.
Barlow and his doctoral students wondered if patients could become inured to those symptoms.
They developed a test treatment called interoceptive exposure, through which patients repeatedly experience and learn to manage such symptoms as sweating, shaking and hyperventilating. Patients trigger the symptoms through physical activity, "to experience them in a new, nonfearful, nonthreatening way," explains Barlow.
He notes that the approach, developed through "an interaction of classroom and clinical work," has proven so effective that it's now the agoraphobia and panic disorder treatment of choice among clinicians and has been incorporated into the clinical practice guidelines of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD
Professor and director, Division of Health Psychology, Ohio State University School of Medicine
Kiecolt-Glaser knew she wanted to investigate stress's effect on immune functioning--she just needed the right population. Then she found it staring her in the face.
The medical students she supervised had always been interested in the physical effects of stress, particularly their own stress of life-or-death decisions, 24-hour call and high-stakes exams. Here, she realized, was her research question and population.
In a blood-work study of 75 medical students, conducted with her virologist husband, Ronald Glaser, PhD, she found that the more students were stressed by exams, the less effectively their immune systems suppressed viral activity. Lack of social support also hurt their immune functioning.
"Every piece of data was significant," she says, noting the fruitful psychoneuroimmunology research the study has inspired. "It was a lesson in paying attention to what's happening right around you."
Baruch Fischhoff, PhD
Professor, department of social and decision sciences, Carnegie Mellon University
Fischhoff's collaborations with students have led to new thinking on health-related decision-making. What, for example do patients need to know in deciding whether to undergo carotid endarterectomy--surgery to remove fatty deposits from inside a carotid artery? According to "informed consent" laws, they need to know what risks the surgery poses.
However, when a doctoral student of Fischhoff's, Jon Merz, reviewed standard procedures for carotid surgery, he found that much of the risk data given to patients was useless or distracting. Together, Fischhoff and Merz developed a method of identifying major risks that optimizes the use of patients' time. For carotid surgery, the major risks are death, stroke and facial paralysis.
Another of his doctoral students, Wändi Bruine de Bruin, has affected health research methodology with her discovery that when survey respondents use the term, "50/50," they don't necessarily mean "50 percent." She found, for example, that when asked about their chances of contracting HIV/AIDS, adolescents often say "50/50" when they don't know the degree of risk. Recognition of this phenomenon among researchers helps them to improve the design and analysis of survey data. This underscores, says Fischhoff, the importance of "listening to students--and respondents."
Monica Reis-Bergan, PhD
Assistant professor, School of Psychology, James Madison University
Before Reis-Bergan asked her students to help her choose research topics, their eyes glazed over and brains tuned out in class. Now, their enthusiasm shows as they investigate a classmate's interest in the effects of "party music" on people's decisions to drink alcohol. "I've even heard students talking about it in the halls," says Reis-Bergan, a second-year faculty member, referring to her undergraduate research course of 16 students.
In helping her with topic selection, students must fit their ideas to her research program on decision-making about risky behavior, and must adopt a theory-based framework for their ideas. For example, using "prototype willingness" theory, she and her students are examining whether party music makes students more "situationally willing" to drink. Students' curiosity about their peers' risky decisions to binge-drink, skip classes or forego sunscreen fuels their interest in such research, Reis-Bergan says.
"Students are involved and feel ownership," she says. "At the same time, I am advancing the theories I'm interested in."
William Buskist, PhD
Kulynych/Cline Family Distinguished Professor for the Teaching of Psychology, Appalachian State University
As a first-year professor, Buskist was determined to learn what defines a good teacher. And there seemed no better investigative method than to ask students themselves.
Thus began his life's work of polling students and faculty about the traits that make top teachers. Though he's found overlap in students' and instructors' notions of those traits--both, for example, value body language, enthusiasm, and student interaction--there is also a notable difference. Whereas faculty focus more on teaching techniques, students focus more on faculty responsiveness and availability.
Buskist feeds such findings back into the classroom, which shows in the many teaching awards he's won. Students also spin off their own research from his work--one graduate student, for example, is examining the major challenges facing teaching assistants. And Buskist widely publishes and lectures on his findings, largely to benefit new faculty. "They always want to know how to teach better," he says.
Pamela Scott-Johnson, PhD
Assistant professor of psychology, Spelman College
Scott-Johnson has always tuned into her environment. In the corporate world, she researched fat and sugar substitutes and their physiological and neural relevance in taste preference, which interests product developers. In academe, she's shifted back to the brain science of eating and eating behavior, which interests students. One area of focus for her and her students is eating disorders among African-American women.
At first, some students resisted her eating-disorders research, saying "this isn't a problem for African-Americans, and if it is, it's because they're trying to be white." Yet feedback from Spelman's counseling center suggested otherwise--counselors there had seen a number of cases of bulimia and anorexia nervosa.
Scott-Johnson's research indicates that serious problems are being cloaked by stereotypes about African-Americans as being free of eating disorders. Her findings at Spelman suggest that dieting is common, and that peer rewards for thinness encourage it. To debunk the myths, she has been leading eating-disorders education sessions for students--a way to "support my students and my community," she says.
Drew Appleby, PhD
Director of Undergraduate Studies in Psychology, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis
Appleby saw the potential for a research project when two third-year undergraduates approached him about who and how to ask for recommendation letters for graduate school, and what would be in them.
Under his supervision, the students collected application requirements from 150 graduate psychology programs, and then pinpointed what programs most desired in recommendation letters. They discovered that evaluations of personal characteristics and academic skills--including motivation, maturity and strong research, writing and speaking skills--were requested more often than high intellectual abilities and knowledge of the field, which they assumed programs evaluate based on grades and Graduate Record Examination scores.
Not only did Appleby's two students successfully apply the results in their own applications (both were accepted into graduate programs), but they presented their findings at an undergraduate research conference and published their findings in Eye on Psi Chi, the journal of psychology's national honor society. This way, other undergraduates learned from the study, and they continue to, says Appleby. He shares the findings with his freshmen psychology majors.
"If we wait until they're seniors to tell them about what goes in recommendation letters, it's too late," he explains.