Research Assistant Spotlight
Leah Thomas, psychology senior, was selected by multiple faculty members as an outstanding research assistant. We asked her a few questions about her experience with research, her interests and her plans for the future.
What do you plan to do after graduation?
For the immediate future, I plan on traveling through North America to learn more about the different cultures inhabiting this continent. Afterwards, I want to explore the psychology research, medical, clinical, and counseling professions through additional internships and nonprofit organizations. I think it is crucial to be confident in my career choices and specific research interests before committing to one graduate program. Getting more field experiences will help me strengthen that confidence. But, I am very excited for the day I start my Ph.D. program, whether that is here in the U.S. or in other parts of the world. There is so much to learn about the human brain, mind, and behavior!
Why are you interested in research, and what are you specifically interested in?
Research is exciting because it lets us combine all the current knowledge about a particular topic we have. It allows us to ask an indefinite amount of questions, and ideally, provides us with answers that will help us progress and lead balanced lives. I specifically chose a research internship because I am interested in the intersectionality of psychology, medicine and neurology. Dr. Smith, who has been researching the neurological, cognitive, and behavioral effects of a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1, welcomed me into his team, where I was able to combine these interests. By being part of his research team, as well as Dr. Garcia’s social identity research lab, I have gained invaluable experiences and research skills. It is very fun to be part of both teams, because I get to learn about very different psychological issues that are close to my heart — to explore the relationship between mental health and physical health, and social and gender identity issues.
What is your background and why did you choose psychology as a major?
While growing up in Germany, I did an internship with a doctor when I was 14 years old. Since then, I have been fascinated with clinical psychology and the effects the human mind has on our physical health in our everyday lives. I was so eager to learn more about psychology that I took every possible psychology-related course in high school and visited local workshops for psychiatrists and doctors. Primarily, I was and continue to be interested in understanding mental health issues, factors leading up to individual disorders and effective yet sustainable ways of managing the effects a mental disorder can have on the individual and their surrounding networks. Majoring in psychology was the obvious choice.
Describe a typical day in the research lab. Have you had any unusual or standout experiences you’d like to share?
The fun thing about doing research is that there is never a typical day with a set schedule. Depending on where in the research process you are, there are different tasks that need to be accomplished. I often spend several weeks reading relevant research literature to get a solid understanding of what we already know and don’t know about the research topic. On another day, I brainstorm creative study designs, enter in data, analyze results, or write research papers and presentations. My favorite part is coming together as a team during meetings to discuss ideas and findings, and learn from each other’s knowledge and creativity. Plus, many opportunities arise to get professional experiences and to network with other research teams at conferences and workshops. In the beginning of April, Dr. Garcia’s research team and I traveled to San Jose State University to give an oral presentation about the underrepresentation of women and racial minorities in STEM fields at Cal Poly. I just got accepted to present my senior project about internalizing outcomes in patients with neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) at the biggest neurofibromatosis conference in the US!
What would you say to a psychology student who is on the fence between doing a research or fieldwork internship?
Staying true to Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing motto, the Psychology and Child Development Department requires students to gain internship experiences over two quarters. That means those on the fence of pursuing a research versus field internship have the possibility to try out both to see what suits and excites. The advantage of a research internship is that it directly prepares you for research-intensive graduate programs. If you are set on a counseling, social work, or applied psychology career, maybe a field internship is the better choice. Either way, you might want to experience both types and discover the path that works best for you. I think even more important than the choice itself is to enjoy the internship experiences, stay curious throughout, and to reflect on and apply the gained knowledge and skills outside of the internship site.