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High on research

March 23, 2009


Ellie Lijewski.

Ellie Lijewski with professors, from left to right, Ron Faber, Marco Yzer, Bruce Cuthbert, and Angus MacDonald.

Photo: Rodrigo Zamith

New study on how anti-drug messages affect youth

By Ellie Lijewski

It's hard to watch any TV show these days without coming across at least one ad demonstrating the harmful effects of meth, heroin, or marijuana. Most people watch and tune out as with other commercials, but do our minds and bodies react to these messages?

A study here at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities aims to discover just that.

A team of reserachers is examining how adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 process and interpret anti-drug ads. The team chose this subject because too little is known about the types of health-related messages that are effective and how they work.

This research project is unique in not only its aims, but in its team, resources, and procedures. It combines students, including me, and faculty from several departments who will work over three years to discover more about anti-drug advertisements and their efficiency, effectiveness, and connection to the brain.

The goal is to learn more about the neuroanatomical basis of message processing to prevent substance abuse among adolescents.

Big chance

I was one of 45 students granted a Freshman Research Award through the Freshman Research Program in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). Working with the Office of Admissions, CLA hand matches the students with faculty and programs to create the best possible partnerships.

This semester I am working with faculty and graduate students to design and implement a portion of this health communication study. When I first came to the University of Minnesota in the fall, I had no idea that I would be involved in an interdisciplinary research project focusing on neuroscience and marijuana.

The most important thing to me, however, is that I am getting this experience so early in my academic career; I am working on something that only select upperclassmen usually get to do.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) funded the study, which is broken up into two parts. Part one looks at the features of anti-drug public service announcements (PSAs) that lead to changes in teen perceptions of and behavior toward marijuana. The second goal is to examine whether effective anti-drug PSAs are related to the activation of certain brain networks. For this portion, we will work with neuroscientists from the psychology department to use functional neuroimaging, which shows how the nervous system processes information from the environment, to determine how the anti-drug ads are perceived by the individual and affect the body.

My award stipulated that I work with School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) professor Marco Yzer. Specifically, we have been measuring the perceived and actual effectiveness of these ads. We are also trying to explain the effects of weak ads versus strong ads and why anti-drug ads sometimes are ineffective or even counter-effective.

Dream team

An exceptional aspect of this project is the number of people working toward the same goal.

Besides Prof. Yzer, the team includes advertising professor Ron Faber, psychology professors Angus MacDonald, Monica Luciana, and Bruce Cuthbert, and marketing professor Kathleen Vohs, as well as several graduate students. Even more mind-boggling, though, is that I get the chance to meet and work closely with them.

One aim of the CLA Freshman Research Program is to "expand opportunities for undergraduate research in CLA." My inclusion in this project has done just that. Research, something that had only been remotely interesting to me before, now seems like the most exciting and fascinating subject—something that contributes to everyday learning and knowledge.

I can now tell you what MediaLab is (a program that helps design and execute study questionnaires such as the ones we'll be using), how to submit a grant proposal, what the IRB (Internal Review Board)is and why it is so important to researchers (it has to approve every procedure), and what the amygdala is (a part of the brain deep in the temporal lobes associated with emotion and affected by stimuli).

I'm learning how to work with people who don't even necessarily speak the same academic language, how to solve problems, and how to go about designing and testing unprecedented topics and procedures, all on a deadline. I've discovered that it takes a huge amount of effort to set up studies and recruit volunteers.

Head start

The most important thing to me, however, is that I am getting this experience so early in my academic career; I am working on something that only select upperclassmen usually get to do. The people I've met, the experts I get to listen to, and the relationships and networks I am forging through this experience are priceless. CLA strives for students to "gain insight into the role of innovation and discovery in a particular discipline." I have reached that goal and am continuing to discover and realize new possibilities.

Marco Yzer has a great attitude about research that extends into all the work we do together: "The number one thing to get out of an experience like this is an enthusiasm for research. Much more than skills, research is about natural curiosity and asking questions, research is a tool for pursuing those questions, basically it is just playing around with thoughts we have. Research without enthusiasm is hell, you will hate it, you will be bored ... Research is a process that takes you from an idea or a thought to a tangible [product]."

Being the only undergraduate, let alone freshman, working on this incredible research project is intimidating, yes. When I first began, I was sure absolutely everything would go straight over my head. How could a public relations major and English literature minor understand and connect the worlds of neuroscience, physiology, and neuroimaging to health communication AND be a contributing member of the team? So, I listened. And listened. And listened some more, making mental lists of words to Google later. I've found, however, that as we go along, I understand more about the project, and I am even able to offer a helpful suggestion every once in a while. In the end, I'm learning more than I thought possible, and it’s more rewarding than I ever thought it could be.

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College of Liberal Arts

School of Journalism and Mass Comm.