Psychology: Thrills and Heartaches
"I've always been interested in the body and the brain—how we work."
That's how Melanie Mullins, 22, a native of Holt, Michigan, explains her sojourn at Tech, where she started out in biomedical engineering, switched to biological sciences, and then to psychology, which she now calls her "passion."
She intends to pursue a doctorate in health psychology or neuro-psychology. As a health psychologist, she would help people battle their addictions, illnesses, and "all the bad habits we have." As a neuro-psychologist, she would "figure out how this crazy brain we have works."
Undergraduate research has given Mullins a taste of the potential in the discipline. That exposure has both fulfilled her and saddened her. Immersed in scientific inquiry, she gathered data about others—and learned something profound about herself.
Under the direction of Susan Amato-Henderson, and assistant professor in the education department, Mullins and another student interviewed fifty-six local high school juniors and seniors.The research, in collaboration with the Copper Country Intermediate School District, was designed to help local educators find out why these youths weren't enrolling in vocational education classes.
These students had physical, cognitive, or emotional impairments, or learning disabilities. Some had severe attention deficit disorder, a problem Mullins could relate to. "I really struggled my first couple of years at Tech. I was doing horribly. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't focus on my schooling. I couldn't keep up with the college pace. I found out I have attention deficit disorder." She overcame the problem with treatment and hard work.
So Mullins brings this personal perspective to her work, which entailed interviewing each student for one hour. They employed three scales of assessment, one for self-esteem (how you see yourself); one for self-efficacy (how you view your chances of success in what you do); and one for parental support (your perception of the help you receive from your parents).
Mullins and her partner gathered a thousand pieces of information on each student. Now they are trying to make sense of the data. "I'm a little cross-eyed," she says. She already knows a few things: girls have lower self-esteem than guys; those in special ed classes all day long have lower self-esteem than those who are in special ed classes for only an hour or two.
Even though the project isn't finished, the work unsteadied her as she learned about her subjects and their struggles. Scientific detachment absolutely eluded her.
"Some of these kids are so nonchalant about how bad their lives have been. It was really sad for me. I realized I don't want to work with disabled kids my whole life because they broke my heart."
She continues, "Then someone said, 'Look at it this way. It's not that you see their sad stories—but that you took an hour of their time and were interested only in them. You just asked questions about them and asked their opinions about things—which, for some, no one has probably ever done before.'" So, Mullins hopes: "Maybe we made their day a little better."
Despite the distress, the research was exciting. "I was thrilled to have the opportunity to do a research project. Huge. It's a wonderful experience. I'm not bossy or anything, but I'm much more of a leader than I ever was before."
She anticipates that getting a doctorate in psychology will be tough. "The workload and the expectations are going to be a lot more," she says. "But I think these guys"—she means Tech faculty—"have prepared me for it pretty well."