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Student's lab work earns national notice

February 11, 2009

When Stefani Baca began her studies at ASU in 2006, all it took was one freshman psychology class to set her heart on a career. She knew she wanted to help families and children, so the following spring she convinced her psychology professor, Keith Crnic, that she was serious about assisting him in his research lab.

Almost two years later, Baca has proven herself such an outstanding undergraduate researcher that she has been selected as a Millennium Scholar by the Society for Research in Child Development. The competitive national award will provide full funding for her to attend the organization’s biennial meeting in Denver for several days next month, pairing her with mentors before, during and after the conference.

The Millennium Scholars Program was developed to encourage and support undergraduates from underrepresented groups to pursue graduate work in child development and related disciplines. Crnic says she may be the first ASU student to receive the award.

“Stefani has been one of the best undergraduate research assistants we’ve had in the lab,” says Crnic. “She is a natural in the way she understands the nuance of parent-child emotion interactions. She is a wonderful student.

“Stefani worked in my lab for over a year, and was instrumental in helping us bring raw data into codable units that help us understand the nature of parent-child interactions. She was a tremendous asset to our research program, and the success of our NIH-funded research is dependent on having students like Stefani, although she is rather exceptional.”

Opportunities for undergraduates to participate in research at ASU are extensive. While the psychology department has one of the largest programs, with several hundred students working in research labs each year, almost every unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has an undergraduate research program, as do many units in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and other ASU colleges.

Baca’s curiosity and drive to learn spurred her to broaden her experience, working also in the research labs of Carlos Valiente in the School of Social and Family Dynamics and Marjorie Zatz in the School of Justice Studies. She added a justice studies minor to her psychology major, and is currently studying the effects of parents’ incarceration and deportation on children.

“I can honestly say that my research assistant positions have been pivotal in finding my place in a large university,” says Baca. “Not only have I gained important experience for graduate school, but I have made connections in the lab with people who have become great friends. It’s a wonderful way to get to know professors on a more personal level, and to gain insight into their fields.”

A graduate of Westview High School in Avondale, Baca was encouraged to attend ASU by her mother, who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. She is especially excited about attending the conference in Denver, as she has never traveled outside Arizona and California.

After graduation next December, she plans to enter a dual graduate degree program in law and psychology so she can advocate for abused children, integrating her understanding of a child’s emotions and behavior into policy and law. She says participating in undergraduate research has been the key to mapping out her future.

“Research opportunities for undergraduates are very important for all of our students who intend to pursue graduate school in psychology,” says Crnic. “Most graduate programs want to see that students have some research experience and commitment to the research enterprise. The opportunities that faculty provide students, both to work in labs and then to lead lab groups as educational experiences, are critical to our students’ success.”