Undergraduates in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology recently competed virtually for the title of most outstanding undergraduate research thesis. Finalists Amanda Acuna, Nicole Taylor and Mya Carrizosa presented research on major depression disorders, alcohol addiction in minority populations and on the genetic and environmental contributions to child psychopathology.
The finalists presented and defended their theses to an audience of their peers, mentors, faculty and scholars from around the country. After the research presentations, a committee of ASU faculty members and outside scholars deliberated and selected a winner based on the quality of the research and presentation.
Mya Carrizosa, finalist
Carrizosa, a senior in the Arizona Twin Project lab, conducted research on how parental and environmental factors can impact child behavioral dysfunction or psychopathology. Her honors thesis, “Genetic and environmental contributions to the relation between parenting and child psychopathology,” analyzed how certain traits may evoke different parenting responses, and their relation to long-term psychopathology. Her project analyzed positive and negative parenting behaviors among internal, external and ADHD traits in twins.
This research is based on the evocative gene environment theory or how an individual's environment is influenced by their genetic predispositions.
“Certain traits may evoke different parenting responses, which might be very heritable traits like ADHD, and those traits may in fact alter the parental response,” Carrizosa said. “The amazing thing with doing twin research is we can actually see how environmental contributions come into play with identical genetics."
This experience, while difficult, was one of the most rewarding experiences in her college career, she said.
“It was so validating to see that the effort that I put into this project was recognized at the end,” said Carrizosa, adding that “the satisfaction that comes from persevering through a difficult project like this made it all worth it.”
Next fall, Carrizosa will be heading to start a master’s degree in counseling at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Nicole Taylor, finalist
Nicole Taylor, a winter graduate from the ASU Department of Psychology, finished up her academic career as another honors thesis finalist for her work in the Gene, Environment, and Youth Development lab with Assistant Professor Jinni Su. She also contributed to research in the Las Madres Nuevas Parent-Child Lab.
Taylor’s honors thesis focused on “Depressive symptoms and drinking to cope in relation to alcohol use outcomes among European American and African American college students.”
“There is a lot of research showing that racial and ethnic minorities have more negative alcohol outcomes long-term in spite of reporting lower alcohol use, and there isn’t much research that shows why,” Taylor said.
Taylor was interested in seeing how depressive symptoms and drinking to cope may account for racial or ethnic differences in alcohol use behaviors. Her thesis found that depressive symptoms were associated with negative alcohol outcomes via drinking to cope, and these pathways of risk did not vary between white and Black/African American college students.
“I underestimated how much work goes into running these analyses, but working with Dr. (Jinni) Su who has so much experience with data made the process much easier and I couldn’t be more grateful for her mentorship,” Taylor said.
Taylor will be starting a marriage and family therapist master's degree program at the Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, this fall.
Amanda Acuna was named the 2021 Best Psychology Honors Thesis for her research in the Behavioral Neuroscience Research in Stress Lab with Professor Cheryl Conrad.
Her thesis, “Unpredictable, intermittent, chronic stress may increase dendritic complexity of short shaft hippocampal neurons,” examined the idea of hippocampal volume and its connection to chronic stress and depression.
The hippocampus is smaller in people among those with major depressive disorder than in those without, and that can be important because of its role in learning and in the stress response.
“My project aimed to modify a preclinical rodent model of major depressive disorder that has produced effects in males but not females," Acuna said. "The hope is that by producing effects in both sexes, we can better model the human disorder.”
Acuna was accepted to the behavioral neuroscience PhD program for fall 2021 in the Addiction Neuroscience Laboratory with Foster Olive, a professor and area head of the behavioral neuroscience program at ASU.
“Not only is she an outstanding and dedicated student, but she is also a fantastic artist which will undoubtedly come in handy when she creates neuroscience illustrations and figures for her research articles,” said Olive, Acuna’s future graduate mentor.
Acuna is not your traditional student however, coming back to school after already receiving a degree in art, raising a family and running a successful swim instruction school for over a decade.
While she had success, she had more personal aspirations in mind, deciding to come back to school to pursue special education. It was in this pursuit that she discovered her love and passion for neuroscience and conducting research. After being admitted to the psychology department, she scanned the research lab listings and contacted Conrad to ask about conducting research in her lab.
“I wanted to explore all of the options that ASU had, and I was so lucky to be brought into Dr. Conrad’s lab,” Acuna said. “I am just interested in the implications of environment and experience on the brain and how that alters behaviors like addiction.”
Acuna hopes to understand the neural mechanisms around addiction and how research can better inform future therapeutics and long term solutions.
“Amanda is one of those 'once-in-a-decade' students that professors dream about. Amanda tackles any project with her full determination and commitment, making it seem like she is completely focused on that one task, yet performing outstanding on multiple projects simultaneously,” Conrad said. “She is intelligent, responsible, insightful, creative and a team player!”
When Acuna isn’t conducting extensive research in the lab, she also mentors other students as a student success coach in the department’s Student Success Center.
“She’s an outstanding role model who truly loves to learn and is a great supporter of her fellow students,” said Will Corbin, professor and director of the clinical psychology PhD program.
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