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Psychology students shine as ASU New College outstanding grads

portrait of Ben Polakoff & Melissa Flores
April 30, 2014

While ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences offers degrees in fields as diverse as applied computing, history, communication studies and life sciences, it was two psychology majors who rose to the top among the nominees for the college’s Outstanding Graduate awards for the spring of 2014. Benjamin Polakoff was selected as outstanding undergrad, while Melissa Flores was named outstanding grad student in New College, the core college on ASU’s West campus.

Both Polakoff and Flores have been accepted to doctoral programs. In fact, Flores was able to choose from five offers from doctoral programs around the country.

As he wraps up his bachelor's degree in psychology, Polakoff is headed to the University of Utah to attend its doctoral program in school psychology. His aspirations in that field are twofold; he would like to engage both in counseling and in research that informs and improves counseling practices in educational settings and contexts.

During an ASU internship with the Alhambra School District, Polakoff shadowed a school psychologist in a Title I middle school. There, he gained experience assessing children to determine their eligibility for special education services.

“The internship enabled me to have experiences out in the field for my future career even before I graduated,” Polakoff said. “The West campus and New College have been perfect for having access to the classes and experiences that I needed to be able to get into a good graduate school.”

To gain experience conducting research, Polakoff served as a research assistant for New College’s Identity & Intergroup Relations Lab. “Ben has played a vital role in a program of psychological research that explores how identification with social groups shapes the way we perceive and interact with others,” said Deborah Hall, the New College faculty member who nominated Polakoff for the Outstanding Graduate award.

Polakoff’s busy schedule also included work with America Reads, tutoring children from diverse backgrounds across a range of grades at Title I schools in metropolitan Phoenix. He worked at an off-campus job and served as a scout master with the Boy Scouts of America.

“Ben is not only incredibly bright, hard-working and mature, but also deeply committed to helping those around him,” Hall said.

Flores, meanwhile, earned praise from faculty member Elias Robles for her work during her pursuit of a master's degree in psychology through New College. She enrolled in the program after earning her bachelor’s degree at the University of Texas, Austin.

“Melissa is a bright, extremely dedicated student who did everything right in our program,” Robles said. “She worked very hard to excel in every class and project she undertook, and she was able to see and seize the many opportunities afforded by the New College and ASU. It is so refreshing to see a person be proactive about her own education and professional growth, and she’s just beginning.”

Flores’ research interests focus on how emotion and stress can affect the human immune system, health and health behaviors.

“My thesis investigated how measures of positivity in the workplace are related to health in full-time workers,” she said. “I found that perception of performance and mental resilience at work are positively related to health, but being happily engrossed in one’s work is negatively related to health. For my doctoral dissertation I am interested in exploring how social stress and emotion suppression can affect glucose metabolism.”

While at the West campus, Flores worked with New College faculty member Mary Burleson on a National Institutes of Health-funded project studying effects of affectionate touch between spouses on cardiovascular stress responses. She also worked with faculty member Perla Vargas on multiple projects, including an examination of the role of sleep disturbances on the health of college students, as well as the usage of over-the-counter medications in this population.

Flores will head to Tucson and the University of Arizona for her doctorate. She chose that program after also being accepted at the University of California-Merced, Utah State University, Clemson University and University of North Texas.

“New College's M.S. program in psychology helped me solidify my interests in research while helping me build my resume to become a competitive applicant to doctoral programs,” Flores said.

“I was able to present at conferences, help write manuscripts with professors, guest lecture for many different undergraduate classes and serve as a teaching assistant for courses as well,” she said. “The program also offers two statistics courses that led me to become more interested in the quantitative aspect of research psychology. I then had the opportunity to take an upper-level graduate statistics course in Tempe, which I very much enjoyed.”

Flores and Polakoff will be recognized during New College’s convocation ceremony at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, May 13, on the Quad at ASU’s West campus. Graduating students will also participate in the ASU-wide commencement ceremonies in Tempe, on May 12 for grad students and May 14 for undergrads.