Starting a research lab at a PUI

I work at a primarily undergraduate university (PUI) where teaching is my main focus, but research and service are still important parts of my job. However, at a PUI, the goal of my research is to include undergraduates and use research as a high impact practice. In other words, I try to facilitate my student’s research rather than writing big grants or high impact articles.

Conducting research at a PUI can be challenging in the first place. There are fewer financial resources and there is a lot less time. I teach four classes per semester (although with only 2-3 preps). I have up to 40 students per class. There are reasonably high expectations for advising and service/committee work. I had to negotiate for both lab space and start up funds, which were not originally included in my package.

So, one of my biggest wins this year was getting my research lab set up and this can be attributed to a handful of amazing students. When I was in a visiting position SNC, I learned that highly motivated students can keep you on your toes and they are the cornerstones of research progress. Because I was visiting, I had more time to commit to research (no committee work or advising, plus fewer courses). I worked with about three (technically 5, but closely with three) students at SNC and one of them ended up publishing work, another had several successful presentations (and a rejected manuscript 😦  – not everything can be a win!), and the third earned an internal grant and was a McNair Scholar. So when I started at UWP, I was hoping I’d find some motivated students to help me start research. I was also pretty intimidated by the potential workload. Here’s a brief overview of my first year of research at UWP:

Last summer, as I was getting ready to move from the GB area down to Dubuque, a student from UWP contacted me. She was interested in conducting research.

I thought, it takes a pretty brave student to contact a person she’s never met for a potential chance to work on research. So we set up a meeting midway between our homes (she also commuted to UWP) and got coffee. This student was interested in childhood adversity. She didn’t necessarily have a specific question in mind and was very open to jumping into anything I had in the pipeline. Considering I was just starting at UWP, I thought having an earnest student to partner with on a research study might be a great way to motivate me to set up my lab and get started. I also like to find common ground with my students. The question I ask is, How can we study something that intersects my work in decision-making with your interests? 

Based on her interests, I thought of some work on childhood socioeconomic status (primarily by Griskevicius) and temporal discounting and risky choice. We talked about this idea for a little bit and started to design a study expanding on this work, examining the relationship between childhood trauma and risky choice and impulsive choice.  In the fall, we ran a pilot study with N=50. Participants came into our lab and completed several measures including the childhood trauma questionnaire, childhood socioeconomic questionnaire, a temporal discounting task, and a probability discounting task. Participants completed all the tasks on Open Sesame (free experiment builder software). We observed a relationship between childhood trauma and temporal discounting (more trauma corresponded with less likelihood of choosing the later option). We did not observe a relationship between trauma and risky choice.

At this point, I had recruited two additional students to work with us starting in the Spring semester. We decided that we ought to aim for a much larger sample size, though, so we decided to move our study to Qualtrics (UWP has a license) and we also used the Adverse Childhood Experiences Questionnaire and a different version of the discounting tasks, so we made several changes. We also expanded our questionnaire to address a second question (Do student debt attitudes relate to risky choice or impulsive choice?). This allowed us to have a second question for students to work on and take ownership of.

This 2nd study was administered online instead of in person and we observed no relationship between adversity and discounting (or risky choice), this time, with a much larger sample size (N=191). I’m not sure if the lack of effect in the second study represents the true relationship or whether administering a survey online elicits carelessness in responses among undergraduate students. In both studies we controlled for childhood SES (which was also not predictive of discounting), and in the second we controlled for depression and anxiety, too.

The three students who worked on these projects presented their results in two posters at our in-house conference. 

During the course of the semester, I was trying to find ways to support student research over the summer. So far, I was relying on students volunteering their time. Because of their busy schedules, the students were able to commit about 5 hours per week. Enough to make progress, but not a true, intensive research experience. I applied for funding through an internal mechanism and received a small grant (the New Faculty Professional Development Award) that is now allowing me to pay two students this summer. One of my student collaborators also applied for a summer scholar program, for which she was selected! So, when summer rolled around a few weeks ago I had three students (two from the earlier cohort and one new one) ready to start summer research.

Some past research suggests that childhood deprivation relates to temporal discounting. I’ve seen mixed research on the effect of childhood deprivation on risky decision-making. For example, Haushofer & Fehr (2014) review research finding a relationship between poverty and risk aversion. By contrast, Griskevicius et al. (2013) suggest that lower SES relates to more risk taking. These differences may reflect differences in risky behavior (i.e., engaging in activities with potentially undesirable outcomes) versus risk tolerance in lab tests where there is outcome variance.

Moreover, the current context of individuals likely influences their choices and interacts with past experiences. My summer scholar student devised a study that nicely tests this idea: we are currently examining whether acute psychosocial stress impacts substance use behaviors and whether the effect of psychosocial stress is greater for individuals who have experienced childhood adversity (preregistered here: DOI 10.17605/OSF.IO/ZEAMW). My other students are both interested in neuroscience and are working on testing psychophysiology equipment and developing a research study that extends past work on risky and impulsive choice. We also have the help of a high school student volunteer!

Some key recommendations for starting a lab and staying productive in research at a PUI:

  1. Find a motivated student or two early on (or let one find you)! They will “bug” you enough to make sure you are working on research, even if it’s just a little bit every week
  2. Related to #1, try to ask research questions that intersect your interests with students
    • Once, I tried to facilitate a student project that was too far outside my research area, this was not beneficial to either of us. I could not be as helpful to them as I wanted to be and I wasn’t as motivated to work on that study.
    • If the students not interested, they also will be less motivated to work on the research
  3. Seek out mentors in your discipline and at your university
    • we have amazing “research mentor luncheons” at UWP, which has been an indispensable resource for connecting with other people at my institution working on research with undergraduates
  4. Look for internal funding and small grants
    • For both you and your students!
  5. Focus on a 3 year plan
    • I know I’m not going to publish right away (and fortunately I’m not expected to), so I have a 3-5 year plan to chip away at
  6. Put together “lab onboarding” with key readings or activities you’d like incoming students to complete. Here’s mine. It will probably change.
  7. Find ways to minimize grading and prep without compromising teaching. This is a tough one. Is it really possible? I don’t know. I administer exams online for bigger classes to cut back on grading. I am thoughtful in the timing of my assignments.

With all this being said, I am still learning as I’m going. I’m lucky that I am not expected to publish much at all, so I can focus on my students learning and quality research instead of putting out manuscripts. I’ve had the chance to observe folks a little ahead of me set up labs and start research with undergrads. These mentors are invaluable. My students drive the research and do a ton of hard work! They keep me motivated.


…….I was originally going to write about childhood adversity and how my former student got me to start reading more literature on adversity/poverty. I was also planning to write about how childhood deprivation and trauma affects neurodevelopment and how important this is in light of everything that’s going on right now at the border….. So maybe I’ll have more on this sometime soon……

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