Diving into the thick of things

Louise Acker on her experiences of the Society’s Undergraduate Research Assistantship scheme

It is extremely rare, as an undergraduate student, to have the opportunity to get involved with the design, running and analysis of a psychological study; to feel part of a network of motivated and inspiring individuals, and to learn so much about a specific field. Thanks to the British Psychological Society studentship (see p.969), which allows supervisors who are actively engaged in research to appoint an undergraduate student as a research assistant for six to eight weeks, I not only discovered that the studies I’ve read about as part of my degree course had been run by real live people, but was able to dive into the thick of things myself.

I spent my summer placement at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford where Dr Emily Holmes is the Principal Investigator of the Experimental Psychopathology and Cognitive Therapy (EPACT) team. I was very excited when the studentship scheme became a possibility as it would provide an opportunity for me to become involved in a project of my own.

It was during my second year at Bath University that I started to get interested in cognition and neuroscience, and was particularly taken with the sort of questions raised in my cognitive psychology lectures: How do we think? How do we learn? I was fascinated as we started to look at the underlying mechanisms of memory and the implications these have in terms of processing and remembering information.

I started work with EPACT in the summer of 2008, and quickly discovered that the team is a flurry of buzzing, driven activity. My project was designed by Emily and Dr Catherine Deeprose: they worked through this with me and very quickly I was up-and-running, enthused by the interesting talks and opportunities that were now available to me. Thanks to such opportunities I have acquired some skills that wouldn’t have been possible solely within my degree course: for example, how to adapt to the role of a researcher in experimental psychopathology, to recruit participants through advertising campaigns and university fairs; to manage my time and take responsibility for my own project, and to work in a clinical environment with clinical psychologists, experimental psychologists and psychiatrists.  These are all tremendously useful skills that I hope will stand me in good stead for a future career in psychology.

My project used the well-established Trauma Film Paradigm (Holmes & Bourne, 2008) to investigate the effects of completing visuospatial cognitive tasks (a tapping box and counting task) half an hour after a traumatic film on the frequency of spontaneous, intrusive memories (intrusions). As predicted, we found that participants in the visuospatial condition reported significantly fewer intrusions over one week compared to the control group and verbal group. These data are in line with previous studies (e.g. Holmes et al., 2004) which had shown that undertaking visuospatial tasks during a traumatic film can reduce the frequency of subsequent intrusions. This was also an exciting replication of a recent study published by the EPACT team, using the computer game Tetris as a visuospatial task 30 minutes post-film (Holmes et al., 2009). Together, these studies are particularly interesting because they demonstrate that pathological, intrusive memories may be malleable at least up to 30 minutes post-traumatic event, using verbal and visuospatial cognitive tasks, which has clear clinical implications.

One of my particular highlights of the scholarship scheme was the chance to present a poster at the BPS Annual Conference, funded by EPACT. This was my first attendance at a national psychology conference, and I was extremely curious; I had butterflies in my stomach when I set out on the train to Brighton in April! I was keen to present my work and delighted when several of the delegates showed a real interest in my poster (Acker et al., 2009). Following our discussions, I was able to get in touch with several other researchers in various fields and find out more about their work, which was an invaluable opportunity to develop my knowledge about scientific research.

The benefits of this BPS studentship are not limited to the concrete opportunities that it affords or the skills that you develop: it provides an entirely new learning experience. I am now much more conscious of the options for further study, such as master’s degree programmes and how to embark on a clinically relevant PhD. Being around students as well as experienced postdoctoral researchers and professors has been eye-opening, and they have all been extremely generous with their time. Through discussions with those around me I have learned more about myself and the importance of finding out what you are best suited to as a unique individual.

On the basis of my experiences, I’d definitely recommend the scheme as a way of getting a real flavour of the working world of psychological research. It is invaluable not just for the opportunities it opens up, but also as motivation for further study and as a learning experience in itself. It also provides an occasion to collect real, useful data that could have a valuable impact in your chosen field. I’m so grateful for this scholarship as a stepping stone in my future career. I don’t know exactly where I will end up, but I am excited by the wealth of options presented by psychology, and I’m going to work hard to become an important part of it.

The supervisor view
Dr Emily Holmes says: ‘It’s been great having Louise in the team. She has taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to her. We hope the scheme has provided an insight into the world of academic clinical research. I believe the BPS scheme provides a really valuable opportunity to invest in the development of our researchers of tomorrow.’

Dr Catherine Deeprose comments: ‘The BPS scheme provides a fantastic opportunity to encourage and develop students interested in a career in research. We were delighted to receive this prestigious award and thank the BPS for their support and Louise for her enthusiasm and dedication.’

Further information on Dr Emily Holmes and the EPACT team, as well as many of the team’s publications, can be found at www.psychiatry.ox.ac.uk/epct

Acker, L., Bossward, H., Deeprose, C.
& Holmes, E.A. (2009). Viewing distressing films which produce flashbacks: Can post-film cognitive tasks help? Poster presented at the British Psychological Society Annual Conference, Brighton, 1–3 April 2009.
Holmes, E.A. & Bourne, C. (2008). Inducing and modulating intrusive emotional memories: A review of the trauma film paradigm. Acta Psychologica, 127(3), 553–566.
Holmes, E.A., Brewin, C.R. & Hennessy, R.G. (2004). Trauma films, information processing, and intrusive memory development. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 133(1), 3–22.
Holmes, E.A., James, E.L., Coode-Bate, T. & Deeprose, C. (2009). Can playing the computer game 'Tetris' reduce the build-up of flashbacks for trauma? PLoS ONE, 4(1), e4153 doi:4110.1371/journal.pone.0004153.

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