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Top psychology students compete for best undergraduate honors thesis

Students present in front of committee of external examiners, faculty

Collage of portraits of ASU psychology 2022 honors thesis contest finalists.

“Best Undergraduate Honors Thesis” finalists Lauren Paxton, Tatum Zapp and Ashley Rivard.

April 18, 2022

Undergraduates in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology recently presented their honors theses in front of a committee of external examiners and their peers to compete for the title of “Best Undergraduate Honors Thesis.”

Finalists Ashley Rivard, Lauren Paxton and Tatum Zapp were selected for their projects on the effects of comorbid anxiety among children diagnosed with ADHD, family predictors of educational attainment, and mapping vowel phonemes to emotional arousal, respectively.

Each year, the cohort produces graduate-level research projects based on datasets or research done by their mentor to answer questions that the undergraduates personally care about.

“This research is done primarily by the undergraduates, and it mirrors the advanced work done in many master’s programs around the country,” said William Corbin, professor of psychology and director of the honors sequence.

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.

This year, Ashley Rivard was named the winner of the Best Undergraduate Research Paper in Psychology.

External examiners included Kevin King, professor of psychology at the University of Washington; Mark Rapport, professor and director of clinical training at the University of Central Floridal; and Lawrence Rosenblum, professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

Additionally, the department presented scholar awards to undergraduates based on donor-named funds for their hard work throughout the year. Scholarships are available for any student in the Department of Psychology and promote interest in child development, biopsychology, intervention work, advancing underrepresented students and applied social psychology. The department also provides scholar awards for general academic merit for rising undergraduates.

Meet this year's awardees:

Ashley Rivard

Rivard is part of the Hyperactivity, Executive function, and Attention Treatment (HEAT) Lab with Assistant Professor Lauren Friedman and helps to conduct research on ADHD and its effects on the executive functioning and working memory of children. Additionally, the lab’s research aims to inform future intervention programs to improve existing interventions and develop new treatment approaches based on our understanding of the neurocognitive dysfunction that underlies ADHD.

“I was interested in working with Dr. Friedman because her lab focuses on the clinical applications of research, and I was also really interested that she focused specifically on ADHD because it's a neurocognitive disorder,” Rivard said. “It was so validating to work with Dr. Friedman because she is my hero. She always jokes with me that I caught the research bug!”

Rivard’s thesis, “Effects of Comorbid Anxiety on Working Memory, Behavioral Inhibition, and Sustained Attention Performance among Children Diagnosed with ADHD,” aimed to analyze if comorbid anxiety in children with ADHD affected working memory performance in a linear or non-linear manner. Rivard’s project found that somatic anxiety, or physically displayed anxiety symptoms like higher heart rates or faster breathing, actually improved working-memory performance when experiencing moderate levels of anxiety, whereas high and low levels of anxiety decreased performance.

She never pictured herself in a research setting, but at the outset of the honors thesis, Rivard contacted Friedman and asked to be in her lab. While Friedman was new to ASU and hadn’t taken on an honors student before, the lab was an instant fit.

Rivard plans to go to physician assistant school and is hoping to work with children and developing populations.

“I really wanted to do something in medicine, but being a doctor didn’t really suit me because I want to spend a lot more time with patients rather than having to deal with insurance and the business aspect of being a doctor,” Rivard said. “At the core of it, I have a passion for people.”

Rivard was very surprised to be selected as a finalist but felt very validated after the long hours in the HEAT Lab.

“I was in shock. I definitely cried a little bit. I was just so unbelievably happy. I worked so hard on it, and being recognized as a finalist was like the greatest honor ever,” Rivard said.

Lauren Paxton

Paxton is part of the Adult Family Development Project (AFDP) directed by Regents Professor of psychology, Laurie Chassin. This project looks at the intergenerational transmission of substance use disorders. It is a genetically informed, 20-year longitudinal study of three generations that examines the development of alcohol and drug use and substance use-related problems, as well as protective factors that promote healthy development.

“I have always been really interested in like externalizing behavior, which describes things like substance use, impulsivity and antisocial behavior,” Paxton said.

In addition to her research, as part of the Prison Education Project, she serves as a mentor to adolescent girls who are incarcerated. Paxton teaches an introduction to psychology class and found that many of the teen students could relate to the content of the course.

According to the ACLU, on any given day, approximately 60,000 youth in the United States are incarcerated. In Arizona, approximately 130 out of 100,000 youth are incarcerated, with rates dropping since 2013.

“The students would say that their own adversities or childhoods were very similar to some of the examples in the textbook or say that they personally experienced high levels of verbal conflict,” Paxton said. “It is a little scary at first when you have the cell doors close behind you, and you see these students who are cast out by society, but the students are really great. They are appreciative and really inquisitive. Incarceration really strips you of so much of your humanity, and I think these students just enjoyed having a peer that looked at them as another person.”

Paxton’s honors thesis uses data from the AFDP to look at families with substance use disorders. She wanted to look at how having a parent with an externalizing disorder such as alcohol, drug use or antisocial personality disorder can impact educational attainment within the same family.

“We found that between families, parents who had externalizing disorders also had lower educational attainment, and that contributed to lower educational attainment in their offspring as well,” Paxton said. “We were thinking that this may be because parents with low educational attainment and lots of externalizing disorders have difficulty scaffolding appropriate academic achievement for their own offspring. They may have difficulties helping their kids to study or do homework, and may pass on their own behavioral limitations. We also found that within families, siblings who are more impulsive have a lower level of educational attainment than their other siblings.”

In the future, Paxton aims to complete a joint clinical psychology PhD/JD program with a focus on supporting families.

“I'm really interested in the intersection of law and psychology,” Paxton said. “I’d love to conduct research and then also work in public defense for people who struggle with externalizing factors like addiction or mental health disorders.”

Tatum Zapp

Zapp’s thesis, “Extending the Wham-Womb Effect: Mapping Vowel Phonemes onto the Emotional Dimension of Arousal using Cartoon Illustrations,” was conducted under the mentorship of Professor Mike McBeath and Christine Yu of the Perception, Ecological Action, Robotics, and Learning (PEARL) Lab.

The PEARL Lab conducts research on perception, both visually and auditorially, and Zapp wanted to see why we initially evolved a sensitivity to specific vowel sounds.

Zapp previously was in the Culture and Ecology Lab, and was drawn to evolutionary psychology because of our shared evolutionary background and how there are similar behavior patterns across cultures and species.

Her thesis was an experiment to show the relationship between monosyllabic pseudowords containing specific vowel sounds and emotions displayed in cartoon illustrations. She hoped to find that specific sounds generated arousal or emotion in participants. The participants engaged in a matching task where they heard sounds and then chose the illustration that they thought matched the sound. Overall, she found that participants matched /ӕ/ sounds with high arousal emotions and /u/ sounds with low arousal emotions.

“High arousal emotions would be like joy, excitement or anger, and low arousal emotions would be like relaxation,” Zapp said. “Our study found that there is an innate relationship between embodied emotional expression and speech production. From an evolutionary perspective, being able to recognize emotions through audition should have an adaptive value because of the increased chance of survival. In theory, correctly identifying high levels of arousal could allow you to perceive threats and dangers and react more appropriately.”

In the future, Zapp also plans to go to physician assistant school and currently works as an intern at the Neurology Consultants of Arizona, an outpatient neurology practice in Scottsdale.

“I'm definitely honored and grateful to be recognized for my work, and while I am a little bit nervous to present again, this whole experience has been so cool and rewarding,” Zapp said.

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