The psychology labs in the Goulet Science Center don’t look very fancy. They don’t even look like labs, if you’re expecting mice and vials full of funny-colored liquids. But those plain walls and black computer monitors and keyboards hide parks, apartments, grocery stores, and other virtual environments. By entering them, students replicate situations that we encounter every day: getting from Point A to Point B, for instance, and remembering how to get there again the next day. Finding our favorite brand of ice cream in the grocery store. Or recognizing our car, within a fraction of a second, without seeming to think about it at all—even when it’s seen from a distance or from a different angle. They seem like simple processes, but to the students working in these labs, they’re anything but. They are complex mental states. And they underlie just about everything a human being might need to do, from learning to talk to making critical decisions in a battlefield. By taking basic theories about cognition and testing them in virtual environments, these students are making small contributions that may one day be used in big ways. As with any basic science, the practical application could be right around the corner or a long way down the road. Understanding normal cognitive processes is the key to understanding atypical ones like dyslexia, ADHD, and dementia. Psychology professor Kathleen Flannery is an inspiring mentor for psychology and computer science majors interested in this growing field. “She is responsible for outfitting the VR (virtual reality) and cognition labs, making them grow and keeping them current, and getting students engaged,” says department chair Elizabeth Ossoff. The department’s facilities are unique for a small undergraduate college, and Flannery’s dedication is one reason why. An expert in developmental neuropsychology, Flannery has conducted research supported by Saint Anselm College summer grants, the National Science Foundation, the Helen V. Branch Foundation, and others. She did one of the first VR studies in the department in 2003, on using the virtual classroom for 28
the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. When she published an article on it in Child Neuropsychology, her former student and Undergraduate Research Scholar Rebecca Adams ’05 was a co-author, along with psychology professor Paul Finn. Adams (now McLean) continued her research on attention in children and adolescents with autism as part of her studies at Suffolk University, where she earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology with a concentration in neuropsychology. She is now a postdoctoral fellow in pediatric neuropsychology at Brown University. Flannery and her students present their research at national and regional conferences, and the department’s research program draws praise from scientists who visit from other institutions. The professor is currently working with Mihaela Malita, of the Computer Science Department, on interdisciplinary course work for students to develop online tests for cognitive abilities such as spatial memory.
Blue Spinach and Purple Apples Using the same tools research psychologists have, students conduct research that powers their graduate school applications and lays the groundwork for professional work. There is another benefit, as well: even as sophomores and juniors, students have valuable opportunities to train and supervise their peers. Erin Albiero ’13 is in her third year as director of the cognition and VR labs. She makes sure software and hardware are up-to-date and helps students follow their interests using the available equipment, such as head-mounted displays. She is also developing ways to collaborate with other schools, posting Saint Anselm students’ protocols so that colleagues can see each other’s work and discuss it online. Albiero was awarded an INBRE research assistantship to work with Professor Flannery during her junior year. “I love doing research,” she says. “I didn’t think I’d get to do as much as I’m doing here. I’ve realized Saint Anselm was a great choice instead of a bigger university.” She has always been curious about people’s behavior: “It’s a psychology-student thing. The other day I went to a Red Sox game and watched all these people getting together in the rain rooting for the
The Magazine of Saint Anselm College