Research hooks undergraduate

Before Margo Williams enrolled in Psychology 395 for her last semester at Carolina, she had no idea a single course would draw on both her majors, allow her to contribute to important research on young children and cement her career choice.

The Charlotte native, who graduated in May, will soon start working as a research assistant in a UNC lab, while applying to Ph.D. programs in clinical psychology. Graduate programs that she has already interviewed with are chiefly interested in the work she did for PSYC 395 at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG).

Since the start of the school year, Williams, a psychology and Spanish double major, worked in FPG’s Infant and Child Assessment Lab. She began as a volunteer, then worked to fulfill PSYC 395 course requirements. The course allows students to work on research projects under a mentor’s guidance.

“It’s a real-life application of what we’re learning in other classes,” says Williams. “It’s an amazing experience.”

At FPG, Williams applies her clinical psychology training to a research study that relies on her carefully giving touchscreen computer assessments to young children to test their working memory and attention levels. She also scores recorded assessments and parents’ reports of their children’s typical behavior.

Williams’s coursework at FPG serves several innovative UNC School of Medicine studies headed by Dr. John Gilmore. Gilmore’s research is designed to improve knowledge about brain development in young children, including twins, to understand ways in which early differences contribute to later development.  In her first job after college, Williams will work in Gilmore’s lab.

“I want to go to graduate school.”

The opportunity to sharpen her skills on research at FPG “helped me figure out I want to go to graduate school in clinical psychology,” Williams says. “Research is such an important part of graduate school. In psychology, you’re expected to know how to conduct research. My time at FPG has been incredibly helpful.”

Her responsibilities also united her two majors. Williams had spent a semester in Seville, Spain, through UNC’s Study Abroad program. At FPG her Spanish prepared her to navigate a language barrier. “Some kids, especially the twins, are primarily Spanish-speaking,” says Williams. “This is the first vocation where I’ve ever been able to combine my majors.”

She attributes the fusion of Spanish into her work to her mentor for PSYC 395. Dr. Barbara Goldman, longtime FPG scientist and director of the Behavioral Measurement and Audiovisual Center, leads Williams’s research internship.

“Dr. Goldman is great,” says Williams. “She wants us to get the most out of the course, out of our experience at FPG, and she tailors our involvement to what we want to do. She worked Spanish into it for me.”

For some assessment measures, Williams helped to translate instructions, which all staff can use with children who are more comfortable speaking Spanish. She also administers touch-screen assessments in Spanish.

“I found a population I love to work with,” says Williams. “And it’s made me want to work with this population even more in the future.”

Goldman feels Williams’s observational skills and understanding of human behavior have helped to make her an excellent fit for the lab. “Margo is wonderful to work with,” adds Goldman. “She has a calming and supportive style with children and a fantastic work ethic.”

Undergraduates in research projects

Also a research associate professor in the Department of Psychology, Goldman routinely uses the skills of undergraduates in research projects.

“I try to find ways that students can help me in the lab while learning or practicing skills that will be useful to them,” she says. “Even for students who choose not to go into the kinds of work that they do here as undergraduates, the skills they learn and practice — and being able to see the scientific way of thinking in action — are valuable in whatever they choose to do next.”

Goldman says that for students who at first are less inclined to a career in research, hands-on experience through classes often is the clincher. “They can see and feel what it’s like to have an idea and test it out themselves, and maybe discover something new. That’s the hook for us researchers.”

Williams, has no doubt that her participation in pioneering research at FPG has changed the trajectory of her life.

“I’ve learned what I want to focus on,” she says. “I know what I want to continue with.”

 Published June 7, 2013.