Psychology Dean’s Medalist researches how therapy dogs reduce stress

December 11, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.

Not all Sun Devils have two legs. Throughout the academic year, groups like Sparky’s Service Dogs, the Psychology Engagement Team, and Sun Devil Paws help the Arizona State University community de-stress by interacting with trained service dogs. Gillian Bryant Gillian Bryant, Dean's Medalist for the Department of Psychology. Photo by Robert Ewing Download Full Image

Gillian Bryant, who is the Dean’s Medalist for the Department of Psychology, wondered about how dogs help college students relax.

Bryant joined ASU’s Canine Science Collaboratory and started a research project to answer the question: Do dogs themselves cause a therapeutic effect, or is it caused by something else like novelty?

“Therapy animals seem to help, and I wanted to know if the animals themselves confer relaxing effects,” Bryant said. “I also wanted to investigate whether the novelty of the experience or the use of touch was contributing to relaxation.”

Bryant designed an experiment to compare interacting with a therapy dog event to receiving a massage. There were three groups of participants: a control group who read an article and two experimental groups that interacted with the therapy dogs or had a massage. Bryant had participants report their stress levels and she measured stress levels through heart rate variability with a heart rate armband. Massages were a good comparison because they were novel and involved touch, similar to how people interact with therapy dogs.

The stress levels of all the participants decreased, regardless of whether they interacted with a therapy dog, received a massage or read the article.

“My findings could be a result of demand characteristics, where people respond the way they think the researcher wants them to, but it’s also possible that these university stress-reduction events really help, regardless of what they offer,” she said.

Bryant said she really enjoyed working on her senior thesis and also from the opportunity to connect with the Sun Devil Fitness Center and Sun Devil Paws.

When she found out about the opportunity to work in canine cognition, she leapt at it.

“A lot of students are attracted to working with dogs because it sounds like fun — which it is — but it actually takes a lot of persistence to carry out a successful honors project. Gillian made life extra difficult for herself by initiating research into the benefits of therapy dogs — something I had never looked into before. All the more kudos to her then for completing such an interesting study. It is great to know that dogs really can help stressed out students,” said Clive Wynne, professor of psychology and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory.

In addition to working in the Canine Science Collaboratory, Bryant also worked in the Learning and Development Lab, led by Viridiana Benitez, and as an instructor at the Phoenix Zoo, helping kids foster a love for animals that aren’t traditionally adored, like cockroaches or scorpions.

“When I heard about Gillian winning the Dean's Medal, I was not surprised. For the time that I've known Gillian, first as a student in my class, and then as a research assistant in my lab, she has shown perseverance, a strong work ethic, and a drive for learning,” said Benitez, adding, “Gillian is also very insightful and intellectually curious, and I have no doubt she will be successful in her future endeavors.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I started college as a theater major. I loved acting but realized I didn’t want to pursue it as a career. In trying to figure out where to go next, I reflected on what drew me to acting in the first place. I realized it was the depiction of human behavior and problems. It was understanding a character in a script and empathizing with her so I could portray her on stage. Acting allowed me to explore the human experience. People are conglomerations of interdependent inborn predispositions and life experiences. The life of just one person is so complex. That’s what fascinated me about theater and what ultimately led me to psychology where I was able to directly study people.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I took the History of Ideas with Dr. Parker my first semester at ASU, and it really affected me. One essay in particular asked us to argue whether or not there is a self. While I had vague ideas about this, I’d never explored them. In the essay, I concluded that there is no permanent, unchanging core self, instead, people are ever-changing hodgepodges of nature and nurture. People, then, aren’t inherently good or bad but inherently complex. Dr. Parker’s class helped me to form this philosophy, and it is why I love psychology. This way of thinking affects how I interact with people and allows me to be more compassionate.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I grew up in Tucson but moved up here after high school. I attended Scottsdale Community College, and transferring over to ASU was an easy choice. Mainly, I wanted to stay near my dad and friends while paying in-state tuition, but I was also interested in research. ASU is one of the best research universities in the country.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I took Statistical Methods (PSY 330) with Julie Patock-Peckham, and she was insistent that we should aim for excellence not perfection. I’ve always been told that my perfectionism will drive me crazy but Dr. Patock-Peckham was the first to explain that perfectionism can actually hurt your academic and professional career. I had never realized that, but it motivated me to get my perfectionism under control. I still have a hard time with it, especially as I wrap up my thesis, but Dr. Patock-Peckham was the first who actually convinced me I should try to change.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Pursue whatever you’re interested in, even if it’s not what you’re “supposed” to be doing for your career. College is a unique opportunity to explore. Whatever you pursue will help you get where you want to be, even if it changes where you want to be! For example, I knew I wanted to be a therapist but I worked at the Phoenix Zoo as an educator for two years just because I loved it. I learned so much about kids and realized that I wanted to specialize in working with them. Nothing you’re interested in is a waste of time.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I’ve spent the majority of my free time on campus in the Learning and Development Lab’s waiting room. When I’m not in class, I’m usually there. I also like those single-person study rooms in Noble.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m planning on taking a gap year to work with children in a behavioral health hospital. I want to make sure I know what I’m getting into before I spend time and money on grad school. After my gap year, I might pursue a doctorate in clinical child and adolescent psychology or a master’s in social work. The ultimate goal is to become a therapist to help children and adolescents.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: The biggest existential threat to humanity is global warming, so I’d devote my $40 million to tackling this problem. I’d direct the money to support existing technologies to mitigate global warming and help people and animals affected by it. However, most of global warming is driven by multibillion-dollar companies so I would also use this money to fight for structural change to combat corporate greed.


Robert Ewing

Marketing and Communications Manager, Department of Psychology


ASU partners with SV Academy to help more students make it in tech industry

December 11, 2019

SV Academy, the first tuition-free, online vocational school that provides job seekers with access to high-growth sales careers, announced it has partnered with Arizona State University and Florida International University (FIU) to help more people jumpstart careers in technology — without having to learn how to code — through its newly launched Collegiate Program. In tandem, the company announced an investment from Ashton Kutcher and Guy Oseary of Sound Ventures. 

“We’re excited to partner with SV Academy, a team that’s democratizing access to life-changing careers and economic opportunity with a truly unique approach — this is education that’s hands-on and tuition-free, with a job on the other side,” said Kutcher, co-founder and general partner at Sound Ventures. coding Download Full Image

Through the launch of the Collegiate Program, ASU and FIU graduates have access to:  

  • A full-time job offer with a median starting package of $79,000 plus benefits and equity upon completion.
  • A 12-week, tuition-free, fully-online technology sales training program that teaches human-centered skills led by mentors from Google, Oracle, Salesforce, SAP, LinkedIn and Facebook.
  • Job preparation and placement support at more than 200 companies in SV Academy’s network, including companies like SurveyMonkey, Palo Alto Networks, Pure Storage and Cloudflare.
  • 12 months of on-the-job training and mentorship and access to the SV Academy career network and events program.
  • A co-branded SV Academy program certificate that is issued by the university for any ASU or FIU alumni or senior graduating within 60 days.

As a leader in online education and one of the largest public universities by enrollment in the U.S., ASU is an ideal inaugural partner for SV Academy as the university has shown a significant commitment to increasing access to learning through online courses. Through the Collegiate Program, ASU will be able to route more hardworking alumni to high-growth tech jobs in the state of California, which contains the second-highest concentration of ASU alumni in the country. 

“Sales skills have staying power, and we’re honored to work with ASU and FIU, two leading universities focused on diversity and increasing access to education through online learning,” said Rahim Fazal, CEO and co-founder of SV Academy. “Both universities believe in our unique approach to helping underrepresented talent transition into the tech industry and stand behind our value-add, and we’re excited to expand our reach to even more hardworking graduates across the country.”

“At ASU, we’re passionate about giving our students and alumni the resources they need to pursue their dream careers,” said Darcy Richardson, director of continuing education for EdPlus at ASU. “With so many of our graduates interested in technology and our close proximity to California, where many of our students come from, partnering with SV Academy is another way for us to help people pursue the career they want.”

SV Academy sought out FIU as an initial program partner because in addition to spearheading innovation in the online education space, it has a very diverse student body and graduates more Hispanics than any other university in the continental U.S. FIU recognizes SV Academy’s mission to diversify the tech industry, making the university a prime program partner.

“SV Academy shares our zeal for providing accessibility to life-changing education and gives graduates the tangible skills and mentorship that make them immediately hirable and valuable members of the tech community,” said Joseph Riquelme, assistant vice president of FIU Online. “This partnership marks a significant milestone for FIU and opens up doors to careers in tech for our alumni everywhere.”

Make money, not code: A new pathway to work in tech 

It’s no secret that landing a job in technology is one of the most coveted roles after graduation. Unlike other industries that require years of experience, technology is a field hungry for young, in-demand talent who are eager to earn a high salary and pay off student debt.  

But for many recent graduates, coding is both unrealistic and unappealing. In fact, a recent McKinsey report estimates 50% of today’s jobs are susceptible to artificial intelligence, further confirming that engineers are coding themselves out of a job. That’s why SV Academy, which has already generated over $40 million in full-time offers for its graduates, makes it possible to work in tech, no coding required. 

ASU and FIU recognize this opportunity and are leading the charge in giving alumni who need assistance in navigating career options or who might be overlooked based on location, gender, race or socioeconomic status a chance to work in technology, a fast-track to Silicon Valley and beyond. 

Since 2017, SV Academy has led 28 cohorts and transitioned hundreds of fellows into high-paying, high-growth sales careers. On average, graduates of the program secure a career in 39 days, whereas it takes the average college graduate three to six months to secure employment after graduation. Unique to SV Academy is its approach to sourcing nontraditional talent and, to date, the company’s graduates are 25% African Americans, 16% Latino/a, 60% women and 70% first-generation college graduates. Additionally, 70% of graduates are promoted within the first year, with all demographic groups advancing at the same rate. The company was co-founded by CEO Rahim Fazal, whose last company, Involver, was acquired by Oracle, and COO Joel Scott, the former vice president of operations at Hewlett Packard.

To apply today as an ASU alum, visit the SV Academy website.

Carrie Peterson

Associate Director, Media Relations, EdPlus at Arizona State University