New Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship supports the research interests of underrepresented students
Koop Bills is an Arizona State University senior in neuroscience and psychology who wants to pursue a PhD in cognitive neuroscience after graduation. Bills was the first recipient of the brand-new Jenessa Shapiro Undergraduate Research Scholarship designed to support underrepresented students in their pursuits of research opportunities. He is a research assistant with the Perception, Ecological Action, Robotics, and Learning (PEARL) Lab.
The PEARL Lab aims to better understand perception and action by approaching perception from the perspective of sports, robotics and illusions. Recent project directions include studying subjective perception, time perception, color perception, sound symbolism and music.
Bills’ personal research interest centers on astrocytes — glial cells in the brain — and on human memory and behavior, such as walking in a pandemic and how you approach people. For example, there is a general trend when walking toward someone to shift to the right side when passing. This bias is consistent worldwide, even in countries that drive on the other side of the road.
“Koop Bills has been working as a research assistant in the PEARL lab and attending lab meetings for over a year now, so I and graduate student supervisor Matt Langley have gotten to know him quite well. Like many others in this COVID-directed year, he was forced to change directions from a well-developed earlier project to one that could be run under social isolation conditions, but he has adapted well and come up with a nice, socially relevant study,” said Michael McBeath, professor of psychology and director of the PEARL Lab.
McBeath added, “He is a bright, thoughtful, and insightful student and researcher. He has had to endure personal hardship and spend a lot of time working many hours to earn a living while attending ASU, which has slowed down his progress up until now. But he now has a renewed vigor and is making good headway due to receiving the Jenessa Shapiro Research Scholarship.”
Bills was previously an engineering major, but after taking his first neuroscience course, he finished the semester and immediately changed his major.
“When you are reading something and you get to the point of thinking that it is so cool, that is something you should be doing more of. I found that when I read about astrocytes and neuroscience. I had to have more of it,” Bills said.
Video by ASU Department of Psychology
Obstacles to research
Bills has worked two jobs in the restaurant service industry for the past seven years to support his family while pursuing his undergraduate degree and serving as a research assistant in the PEARL Lab. He has had to make sacrifices that other students haven’t in order to pursue his passions and research.
“Oftentimes I’ve had to make the choice to go into work, when I know I need to write a paper — I’ve had to make the choice to work a double, when I needed to be the one to call out because I had real work that was important for me to do,” Bills said.
This experience is representative of challenges that underrepresented students face regularly. Many students need to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet while trying to study and achieve an undergraduate education.
“When I found out I was receiving the scholarship, I lost it and danced around,” said Bills, “It took a few moments to really set in how much my life had just changed from receiving this scholarship.”
The next day, Bills gave his two weeks’ notice at both jobs and refocused his schedule to be entirely research-centered.
Support from his research team
One of the most gratifying parts of the experience for Bills was the support he received from his mentors, McBeath and Matthew Langley, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology. He hadn’t seen the application for the scholarship, and they pushed him to apply, encouraging him to work on the application a little bit every single day.
As Bills’ comments came through the shared document, they would edit in real time, even late into the night. They set up additional one-on-one meetings to make sure he was hitting his deadline to apply.
“That was the most amazing thing, to see the support I was receiving from my professors and how much they wanted me to get this scholarship,” Bills said. “They didn’t have to do this — I’m just an RA, I’m just a student — but they put in that extra effort, just because they care.”
Supporting the scholarship
“What really benefits the world is diversity. It is unique experiences getting to the highest level of education. It is the idea that we are better as a team, so if you are looking to donate to a fund, I think it is really important to give to scholarships like this one,” Bills said. “You just don’t know who someone can be, until they are given an opportunity to grow.”
The Jenessa Shapiro Scholarship, which is dedicated to supporting annually one to two students with funding of up to $5,000, is part of the ENERGIZE Initiative in the ASU Department of Psychology. The ENERGIZE initiative is designed to streamline the process of getting involved with research and working around requirements that would previously prevent underrepresented students from gaining the research experience they need.
Top photo: ASU senior Koop Bills. Photo by Robert Ewing