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Three U students talking.

Counseling psychology graduate student Alisia Tran (middle), senior undergraduate Nicole Trinh (left), and high school junior Mikesha Barnes (right) are studying racial/ethnic minority mental health as part of this summer's VIRTEx program.

Early exposure

New program uses research projects to promote higher education

By Christie Vogt

July 31, 2007

An innovative program made its debut at the University this summer, giving high school and college students an exceptional opportunity in the world of research.

Based in the social sciences departments of the College of Liberal Arts, the VIRTEx (Vertically-Integrated Research Team Experience) program creates research teams made up of a high school student, an undergraduate student, a graduate student, and a faculty mentor to work on a project throughout the summer.

The VIRTEx program is designed to increase the representation of students of color and first-generation college students in undergraduate and graduate education. So none of the students has to give up potential summer income in order to participate, the U gives them all stipends for their work.

As one of three research groups this summer, the team led by clinical psychology graduate student Vina Goghari includes senior undergraduate Joanna Mark and high school senior Martin Campbell. They are investigating schizophrenia.

Barnes says her high school friends are remarkably surprised to hear that her summer plans involve stepping into the realm of university research. They don't expect someone her age to have the chance to be involved in such a project, she explains.

"It's cool to teach people about something you're interested in," Goghari says of her experience as the team leader. Their project investigates cognitive functioning in people with schizophrenia, their healthy relatives, and non-psychiatric controls.

Mark says that she is becoming more prepared for future endeavors with this early exposure to graduate work. Getting an even earlier start is Campbell, who states that this is a good opportunity for him because most other high school students never get to see beforehand what college research is like. Given that his brother has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Campbell has a unique connection to the project and hopes that his future may include being part of a breakthrough in the study of the disorder.

"These are the students we need as future scientists," says psychology professor Angus MacDonald III, director of VIRTEx. "By providing this opportunity early in their careers, the University gives them a close-up of the world of social science. Something is going to click."

Counseling psychology graduate student Alisia Tran, along with senior undergraduate Nicole Trinh and high school junior Mikesha Barnes, are studying racial/ethnic minority mental health.

Tran loves to mentor and believes that what she is doing will significantly elevate the critical thinking level of the students.

Barnes says her high school friends are surprised to hear that her summer plans involve stepping into the realm of university research. They don't expect someone her age to have the chance to be involved in such a project, she explains.

Social psychology graduate student Damla Ergun and her team are exploring how emotions influence political decision-making. Ergun's research team includes junior undergraduate Jeff Hunger and high school junior Gauri Shambhavi.

Ergun and her students are running two studies simultaneously. In the first one, they ask people to report their emotions with respect to how they are feeling in general or with respect to their political party. In the second experiment, they actually manipulate people's feelings by asking them to think about a time they felt anxious, enthusiastic, or angry.

"Working on this project with students from different educational levels has been great," says Ergun. "These students bring equally interesting and challenging questions to our research team that improve our research. Their contribution to data collection is indispensable."

The program ends on August 9, and many of the students have said they wish they had more time to spend in their role as researchers.

VIRTEx hopes to expand for summer 2008 to include 12 departments, including psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, and language and hearing sciences.

To learn more about VIRTEx, contact Anise McDowell at amm@umn.edu