Feature

Keep an eye out for psychology's next wave of talent. Three psychology-related projects were among the top 10 winners in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search--known as the "junior Nobel Prize"--held in March at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.:

  • Vinod Nambudiri, 17, of Rye Brook, N.Y., won sixth place and a $25,000 scholarship for his project on how light on skin affects sleep and performance.

  • Johanna Waldman, 17, of Roslyn, N.Y., won seventh place and a $20,000 scholarship for her study of attitudes about cheating.

  • David Khalil, 18, of Great Neck, N.Y., won 10th place and a $20,000 scholarship for his study of how the brain processes ambiguous figures.

Other Intel finalists with penchants for psychology included Meredith Arfa, 17, of Armonk, N.Y., who looked at how object enrichment affects chimpanzees; Christina Crabtree, 17, of Chalfont, Pa., who studied differences in human pheromones; and Kimberly Kempadoo, 17, of Hillcrest, N.Y., who looked at the behavioral effects of dopamine in goldfish.

In all, six of the 40 finalists in the oldest and most prestigious science competition for high school seniors presented psychology-related projects. Finalists competed for a total of $530,000 in scholarship funds, met President Bush and visited a leading scientist or a place of historical or political importance of their choice during their visit to the nation's capital.

The Intel Science Talent Search has a strong track record of recognizing talented high school students at a critical stage in their career development, says APA's Richard McCarty, PhD, executive director for science.

"The success record for the 2001 finalists sends an important message to the scientific community. Psychology is attracting some of the most talented high school students in the nation. Clearly the future bodes well for our discipline if this trend continues," McCarty says.

Light sleepers

Vinod Nambudiri was drawn to study sleep because "it's one of life's mysteries," he says.

Working through Cornell Medical College with Patricia Murphy, PhD, and Scott Campbell, PhD, Nambudiri looked at how light on skin--extraocular light--affects sleep and performance in teen-agers.

He found that exposure to extraocular light during sleep significantly altered teen-agers' sleep.

"Slow-wave sleep--deeper sleep--was significantly decreased, while lighter sleep was significantly increased," he explains. He also found that subjects were more alert the following day and able to perform better on tasks the following day.

Nambudiri, who will attend Harvard in the fall, is interested in continuing his research by possibly looking at how long the effects of extraocular light last, or by exploring the effects of repetitive use.

Why do students cheat?

"Going from middle school to high school, I saw so much cheating going on," recalls Johanna Waldman. "I wanted to find out why that was happening."

To unravel the mystery, she surveyed students age 15 to 17 using four questionnaires--one she created and tested herself--to look at how learning and grade orientation, attitudes about cheating and academic pressures (including self, parental and peer pressures) affected cheating behavior.

While only half of her 224 subjects said they thought cheating was wrong, more than 90 percent admitted to cheating at least once.

"The highest pressure was parental pressure," she says, adding that further research is needed on pressures that lead students to cheat.

Waldman, who hopes to study experimental psychology at Stanford University, visited APA headquarters and attended a meeting of the National Science Foundation's Office of Science and Technology Policy with APA staff during her Intel visit to Washington, D.C.

Different perspectives

David Khalil used functional MRI (fMRI) to explore what happens in the brain when a person perceives an ambiguous figure--a line drawing that can be perceived as two different images.

Through his research, Khalil appears to have discovered a network of brain areas that are active during the alternative perceptual interpretations.

"Based on my findings, I conclude that a group of brain areas cooperate to integrate components of ambiguous figures into unified images," says Khalil, who worked with Joy Hirsch, PhD, at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to conduct his research. "Further, activity in one of these areas--the right inferior parietal lobule--is regionally shifted in association with one perspective or the other."

Khalil hopes to study neurobiology at Harvard University and is interested in expanding his research.

"fMRI is still so new," he points out. "The potential to see what the brain functioning is during any task is amazing."

What I did on my summer vacation

Meredith Arfa is what you'd call a persistent scientist. Wanting to turn a longstanding interest in chimpanzees that communicate through sign language into a research project, Arfa learned about a program for graduate students and postdocs at the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute at Central Washington University, and was determined to become a competitive candidate.

"I did everything they asked," she recalls. "I wrote to them regularly. I learned American Sign Language at the New York School for the Deaf, read journal articles and finally was accepted."

To study how object enrichment--interacting with toys and containers--affects chimpanzees' social interactions with other chimpanzees and humans, Arfa spent 10 weeks of her summer vacation at the institute comparing behaviors of five chimps interacting with--or not interacting with--different objects.

She concluded that social interactions, essential to a captive chimp's well-being, are connected to active object use.

"Four of the five chimpanzees exhibited a tendency to interact in social enrichment while using object enrichment," she says.

Arfa met one of her role models--famed primatologist Jane Goodall--during her trip to Washington. Next fall, she hopes to study psychology or law at Cornell University.

Human magnetism

While exploring humans' attraction to pheromones of the opposite sex in eighth grade, Christina Crabtree's research took an important turn when a study participant asked, "I'm gay. Why would you think I'd choose the opposite sex pheromone when I am attracted to the same sex?"

Crabtree was inspired to redesign her project to look at differences in the pheromones of heterosexual and homosexual women. Working with researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center at the University of Pennsylvania, she collected sweat from heterosexual females and homosexual females and exposed the samples to four groups: male heterosexuals, male homosexuals, female homosexuals and female heterosexuals.

She discovered that "everyone had a significant preference for one or the other, which means there has to be a difference between heterosexual and homosexual females' sweat." What's more, she found that "homosexual females significantly preferred homosexual females' sweat over heterosexuals' sweat."

Crabtree, who hopes to attend Brown University this fall, is continuing her research and shifting her focus to differences in male pheromones.

Swimming with the fishes

Collaborating with researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, Kimberly Kempadoo explored the behavioral effects of dopamine on locomotor performance in goldfish.

Through the bottom of a fish tank, Kempadoo videotaped the swimming behavior of goldfish with increased and decreased dopamine levels. Using motion analysis software, she tracked the path of each fish around the tank, and tested the startle response of the fish by dropping a golf ball to the water's surface. She found that higher dopamine levels enhanced fish behavior.

"When exposed to apomorphine, the fish swam almost twice as fast," she says. "They also swam more in the center of the tank, which is considered to be a bold action for the fish--they are more vulnerable in the center."

From her findings, she concluded, "dopamine increases arousal and enables organisms to express their motivation."

Kempadoo, who will attend MIT in the fall to study neuroscience and biomedical engineering, is interested in further research on dopamine because of possible important implications in the battle against diseases such as Parkinson's.

Further Reading

For more information on the Intel Science Talent Search, visit the Science Service Web site at www.sciserv.org.