Week 3: Spence Laboratories, University of Iowa

March 5th, 2014

Tiffany Lawless ’15, Coleman Fellow in Psychology

This week, I was allowed to really sink my teeth into the various projects in Dr. Wasserman’s lab. In one project, we are preparing to test the pigeons with rotated stimuli to see if they can generalize what they’ve learned. These pigeons already have very high accuracy when presented with familiar stimuli, and we want to see if they still perform well when presented with the same stimuli in different rotations. I was in charge of creating all of the new rotations (240 files in all!) in Photoshop, which was a bit of an adventure because I’d never used the software before. I met the challenge just fine, though, and I learned how to run batch processes of many stimuli at once! Once I had created all of the rotations, I put many different sets of training and testing stimuli into spreadsheets that were customized to each individual pigeon. I then put each of these spreadsheets into the program that we use to run the birds. Next week, we will test my 8 new programs to make sure I did everything correctly. I certainly hope I did! It was very exciting to learn how to create programs to use with the pigeons. It really put some of my computer skills to the test!

Also this week, I further honed my hand-shaping skills. One of the birds I’m in charge of is doing very well. He even pecked at the screen a bit this week! The other bird is not going as great, unfortunately. I think she is still a bit unused to the Skinner box. She sits completely still for a half an hour at the start of every session. Obviously, this makes for very slow progress.

The final big task this week was editing the charts I made last week and helping Dr. Wasserman edit the method and results section of his upcoming paper. In psychological articles, the method section informs the reader of how exactly the experimenters carried out their study. The results section includes all of the relevant analyses of the raw data without any subjective discussion. They are very important sections, but they are also some of the easiest to write because they are so concrete. The charts I made needed to be resized a little, and I had to adjust a bit of shading, but the important parts were perfect! I don’t know how much of a help I was with the paper, being that Dr. Wasserman is obviously more experienced in that sort of thing than I am, but I certainly learned quite a bit from seeing and participating in the process. This has been another week filled with learning, and I most definitely look forward to the next!

Week 2: Spence Laboratories, University of Iowa

February 27th, 2014

Tiffany Lawless ’15, Coleman Fellow in Psychology

This week, I was finally allowed to run the birds entirely on my own. It kept me very busy, but it was also interesting to get to know the pigeons on a new level. I’ve even taken to naming them. Nimrod is a female who likes to fly into the wall of her skinner box, Flash and Dash are the fastest pigeons in the lab, and Meaniehead is the one who likes to peck at me to try to get extra food. I’m still working on naming most of the others. The other interesting aspect of running the birds is that I can watch their progress closely. The touch screens that they use in their Skinner boxes are connected to computer monitors outside of their work rooms, and I can see everything the pigeons see and where they peck on the screen. Dr. Wasserman used these monitors to show me exactly what features the pigeons are using to discriminate between the stimuli.

This week, I also began to hand-shape two birds for use in my mentor’s next project. Hand-shaping is a training technique used to get the pigeons used to the Skinner boxes and show them that the screen is where they need to orient themselves. Basically, I sit in a small, dark room with the pigeon in a Skinner box with a special camera mounted in one corner of it. This way, I can see what the pigeon sees and exactly what it’s doing inside the box. I then press a button to reward, or reinforce the pigeon’s behavior with food each time it performs a behavior that is close to the desired one. In this case, the desired behavior is pecking the pictures on the screen. At first, I reinforce the pigeon simply for orienting toward the screen, then I only reinforce them for moving their heads close to the screen. I will move on to reinforcing them only when they peck the screen, and eventually only when they peck the picture on the screen.

My final task this week was to create the graphs that will be used in a paper that Dr. Wasserman is preparing to publish. Essentially, I simply organized the raw data in an easy-to-understand format. I definitely improved my computer office skills! All in all, this week was full of learning, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

My incredibly roomy workspace

My incredibly roomy workspace

Where I go everyday!

Where I go everyday!

A pigeon I'm hand-shaping

A pigeon I’m hand-shaping

The monitors that show us what the working pigeon sees and does

The monitors that show us what the working pigeon sees and does

Week 1: Spence Laboratories, University of Iowa

February 20th, 2014

Tiffany Lawless ’15, Coleman Fellow in Behavioral Psychology

I must be the luckiest fellow in the world! Everyone I work with in Spence Laboratories is exceedingly friendly. I am one of five students working under Dr. Edward Wasserman and Dr. Leyre Castro Ruiz on their current project. I work with two graduate students, one of whom, Jennifer, is my mentor specifically and with two other undergraduates. Together, we are performing an experiment to determine whether pigeons can accurately discriminate between categories of natural stimuli (whether they can tell that cats and flowers are two different categories of objects, for example). We are also hoping to discover what features of the stimuli they use to make their discriminations. This is interesting because our goal is not to test their memorization (whether they can memorize a certain group of pictures and make the correct response) but whether they can actively place objects into categories (essentially, can they tell that this picture of a cat they’ve never seen before belongs in the same category as the cat pictures we’ve trained them with). So far, our results look very promising!

We’ve been using Skinner boxes to train the birds. Basically, the pigeon is placed in a box that has a viewing screen, two buttons, and a food dispenser. The pigeon pecks the screen a few times to make sure it has sufficiently evaluated the image in order to unlock the option to press one of the two buttons. Each pigeon has been trained to use one button for yes (or in-category, or this-is-a-cat) and one for no (this is not a cat). When the pigeon gives the correct answer, it receives positive reinforcement in the form of food. In addition to the data collected from the buttons, we can also analyze where on the viewing screen the pigeons peck the most. We are hoping that analyzing this data will give us clues as to which features the birds use to discriminate between categories.

This first week was mostly an introduction and learning week for me. Before my fellowship even began, I was given multiple reading assignments on past research in the field of animal cognition. Dr. Wasserman really stresses the importance of background knowledge and scholarly curiosity, which I appreciate. My first day, I went through all the formalities and health and background checks to be able to work in the animal labs and my graduate student mentors took me to lunch with some of their friends at a local Indian buffet. Have I mentioned how friendly they are? Later in the week, I was allowed to help my mentor “run the birds,” which means I helped test all of the birds scheduled that day. It was very interesting to see how much variance there is in pigeon personality! Some birds were entirely kind and complacent and others would peck at you and fly around the lab. Next week, I get to help with statistical analysis and will hopefully be allowed to feed the birds. I can’t wait!

Week 5: Calarge Lab

February 18th, 2014

Allan Knight ’14, Chaffin Fellow of Psychology

It’s been a little over a month, and I feel like I have established something of a routine here at the lab. I mostly enter data now for the bone loss prevention study. This study is a kind of sister project to the SSRI bone mass density study, which seeks to monitor and uncover correlations between bone mass density, mental illness status, SSRI treatment status, gut bacteria, genetic factors, physical activity, handedness, family traits, and countless other factors. The goal for both is to better understand how mental illness and its treatment contribute (or do not contribute) to bone health later in life. In medicine there is a phenomenon called the “osteoporosis line”, a point where bone mass density is so low that people are extremely susceptible to fractures. At the age where one typically crosses this threshold, the stress of recovery from a major fracture could shorten one’s life, or at least seriously lower the quality of that life. Most of our bone development occurs in childhood and adolescence; the age group of interest to Dr. Calarge. The anti-psychotic Risperidone is widely prescribed to children and adolescents struggling with surging emotions, and has been already shown to lower bone mass. Dr. Calarge thinks that by taking a supplement of Calcium and Vitamin D, these kids who today take Risperidone may be able to live with healthier bones when they might otherwise start breaking in their 70s and 80s. To assess this, Dr. Calarge has set up a double-blind placebo study on the effects of a vitamin D supplement. Each participant’s entire health history is obtained (at great cost to the NIH) and their vitals, bone mass densities, and mental states (along with other factors such as ongoing treatments) are then closely monitored for up to two years. I will not see the outcome of this study for a long time, but it’s satisfying to know my efforts are helping people live better lives.



Week 4: Calarge Lab

February 11th, 2014

Allan Knight ’14, Chaffin Fellow of Psychology

This week I not only got on the schedule to shadow a visit, but the participant showed up too! I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to observe a  visit for some time, as two participants beforehand had blown off their scheduled meetings. This is pretty common. When I asked Nichole (a more senior research assistant working on her Ph.D in Psychology) just how often participants followed through on their scheduled meetings, she estimated only about 30%-50% make it to the hospital at the agreed time. When it comes to ease of administration, participants seem to fall into two main camps: the reliable and the unreliable. Nichole, often frustrated with trying to get people to stick to the schedule, is currently working on her own research project trying to identify what personality factors make for reliable study participants. According to her research, the mental illness status of a participant is actually not the strongest predictor of their reliability. People suffering from mental illness in general have a tough time getting tasks done, but she feels that a particular subset of people who employ avoidance strategies have an especially difficult time making it in when depressed. Even if these people recover from their major depression and regain a sense of direction and control in life, they usually blow off the meeting to do something else.

Ethical considerations regarding patient confidentiality prevent me from over-sharing details of the more personal aspects of the visit, but most of what I really learned came from paying attention to the technique employed by the interviewers. Dr. Calarge spoke with me beforehand about the challenge of balancing his own need to actively pursue the answers to questions necessary for concluding a diagnosis, while simultaneously listening passively enough to guide your hunches and not just unilaterally leading a patient on. Whether you’re a lawyer, psychiatrist, or detective, it’s an incredibly difficult skill to master, and no two people strike quite the same balance between the two objectives. Since he was short on time and already had established the patient’s history he was forced to lean almost entirely to the active questioning side of the equation. However next week I have the chance to shadow a first-time visit, where with more time and fewer givens I expect the process to look quite different.

Week 8: 1st Stage

February 7th, 2014

Grace Callahan ’14, Cornell Fellow in Arts Management

As this is my last week here and it’s tech week for the show, it has really been a great chance for me to reflect on all the things I’ve learned over the course of my internship. By no means was it all fun and games. At times, I felt overwhelmed by the rigor of the workload. In these moments, it was incredibly important for me to remember that I was learning life skills in addition to the specific skills that the job requires. I was learning to persevere. I was learning to innovate. I was learning how to figure out which questions to ask when I don’t understand. Additionally, I’ve made many professional contacts, and even a couple informal job proposals.

As a small theatre, we tend to work collectively. While I have learned quite a bit in arts administration, what I really got was a really close first-hand view of what it is like for the artistic director to oversee the management of all the different elements that have to come together to put a play up. Since my ultimate goal is to start my own theatre–a non-profit that works with under-served youth, teaching them life skills by producing shows–this lesson has been invaluable.

It feels that everything I’ve done while I’ve been here somehow ties into my ultimate goal. Working on my Teach for America application, which was due while I was here, gave me the opportunity to tie my most recent activities into the idea of educating the under-served. Similarly, I had a chance to volunteer with Global Zero a couple times. I got to work with the USA Chapter Coordinator on developing leadership training workshops, which were the exact skills that I got to watch the artistic director utilize every day in his daily interactions.

This past week, I also went to go see Violet at Ford’s Theatre (the one in D.C. where Lincoln was shot.) There were many technically interesting choices. For instance, there was a scrim where characters acted out some of the scenes from the past. However, it wasn’t like that was a location for all the scenes in that place or in that time, so I’m not sure what it added, even though it was interesting. There was also some really interesting set pieces that converted from bus seats to diner booths to train seating. Those were cool. As a playwright, however, I failed to see the necessity of some of the transitional scenes in these places. The story was a heart-warming tale of a white woman in 1964 who falls in love with a black Army sergeant. It definitely made me react. There were many racist moments in the show where I literally gasped at the fact that anyone would say that. My main issue with the love story is that the white woman–who had a huge scar on her face from getting an accident with an axe–sings a duet with the sergeant about what it’s like for someone to look at you and see past the surface of your skin. This playwright is directly comparing having dark skin to a physical disfigurement, and that makes me a bit uncomfortable. I see what the playwright is going for, but this was written in the 21st century. There’s no excuse for that. There are much better ways to get at that.

photo credit: Pedro Duran

And here’s a gratuitous photo of me looking at the Capitol. I really was in D.C.

photo credit: Pedro Duran

Week 7: Global Zero

February 6th, 2014

Elliot Carter ’14, Black Fellow in International Policy

One of the last things I did during my fellowship  was prepare a report on the outcomes of my social media work. Here are some excerpts from the section where I described content models I developed, and remarked on how they did…

New Content Models

1. Sciencey / educational photo essay with anti-nuke message:



  • This was very successful on Tumblr. I did two posts in this model, and they got something like 80 and 100+ notes. They also were responsible for attracting roughly 50 new followers.
  • This tactic targets people outside our traditional circles.
  • I am not sure if this model is exportable beyond Tumblr, because its success may be contingent on the large science community there.

2. Historical / educational photo essay with anti-nuke message



  • This was the first content model I experimented with.
  • Same approach as the science post; target people outside our traditional circles
  • It didn’t get great feedback but I suspect it would have done better if I posted it now, as opposed to early in my fellowship when we didn’t have as big a following

3. Budget Graphics






  • Most people think nukes have already been paid for and have no idea how much we continue to spend on upkeep / ‘life extensions’
  • Big numbers are hard to understand. I wanted to compare it to a number that people are familiar with and care about, like the population of their city.
  • This approach targets the entire city, not just people who are interested in nukes. Anybody who lives in one of these cities will care about this, not just people in our traditional circles of politics / peace. Example: I have gotten reblogs from a Baltimore dating website. There’s potential here to appeal to totally new people.
  • Since the ‘million bucks’ thing uses hyperbole, there’s a chance to bring humor into this model (see the Portland one for example). This should be further exploited.
  • This content model is very well suited to Pinterest or Instagram.



Week 3: Calarge Lab

February 4th, 2014

Allan Knight ’14, Chaffin Fellow of Psychology

This week the lab hasn’t been able to run any bone-scans, so there have not been any participant visits in a little while. Mostly this has been a week of data entry, but I am on the board for shadowing this Thursday’s patient visit! I also got to shadow Sean as he prepared blood samples for human DNA extraction.

Dr. Calarge has taken it upon himself to help me better understand the methods he uses to ‘strategically converse’ with a patient -how important it is for investigators to pursue specific yes/no facts while also respectfully listening to what the patient considers important.

I’ve been listening to books on tape while I do data entry, and one quote from The Death of Ivan Ilyich (about a judge) resonated with me as I thought about this kind of investigative mental health,

In his work itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality.

This week I attended another weekly ‘L.I.F.E.’ meeting where Dr. Calarge gives his input to judgements of a different kind of case. To prepare for these meetings I have been studying the DSM’s (Diagnostic and Statistical manual- the truth of human experience as agreed on by the high priests of psychiatry) entries on mood and personality disorders. During the meeting, Dr. Calarge quizzed me on the book’s criteria for a major depressive disorder (MDD) diagnosis, and I named 4 of the 5 minimum symptoms! It was intimidating, but I felt pretty good considering that my study time was split up amongst hundreds of symptom permutations. Clearly I still have a lot to learn, but I can think of few better environments than the Calarge lab to for that to happen.

At this Fellowship’s halfway point, I have learned much about the reality of standardized psychology, and its big book. Not just memorizing entries on individual disorders, but what it really means means to be ‘mentally ill’, and how we as a society deal with it. In the DSM handbook’s introduction it notes that the use of its standard criteria “enhances agreement among clinicians and investigators”. The National Institute of Mental Health strongly disagrees, and based on the medical forms I have entered as well as the L.I.F.E meetings I’ve attended thus far -so do I. Rarely are patients or the people responsible for interviewing them of the exact same mind from check-in to check-in. An interview that was conducted a week ago usually sounds much different during a later review (like how this blog post probably will). At an interview’s first listen there is little “agreement among clinicians and investigators”, but -and this is the real strength of the DSM- they are able to argue their positions until a group consensus is reached. I am starting to see the DSM almost like the U.S constitution (or Imperial Russian law, as in the case of Ivan Ilyich). Both legal and clinical standards work not so much to answer specific questions with definite answers, but rather they create a common environment for their discussion!

“‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly exclaimed aloud. ‘What joy!’”

Week 2: Calarge Lab

January 30th, 2014

 Allan Knight ’14, Chaffin Fellow in Psychology

Real world lesson for the week: the research of emotional anguish is itself stressful, complicated, and often disheartening.  On Tuesday I was suppossed to shadow a visit with Sean, another student research assistant. Unfortunately his participant experiences extreme anxiety and social phobia, and Sean thought the presence of two researchers might overwhelm her. The second visit was supposed to be with Nichole’s patient, a symptom-free ‘control’ participant, but he was a no-show. I’m really looking forward to attending a patient visit that will (hopefully) take place next week. For now, the team is having me listen to past initial-visit interviews so I can gain a sense of how people are diagnosed before any assumptions are drawn.

The purpose of these interviews is to diagnose patients using standarized techniques like the Beck Depression/Anxiety inventories. In the past I viewed these forms as reductive; without sufficient respect to the intricacies of depression or paranoia. Now, after participating in this enormous study I see their value. In order to compare large groups of people in research you need to cast big, and often simple nets of categorization. I still feel uncomfortable with the idea of insurance company mandated standard inventories in a clinical setting, but I suppose they too are just trying to cut definite paths through a jungle of human complications.

In the absence of patient visits this week I have also further integrated into the data collection side of things. I’ve finally gotten the hang of relaying samples and testing equipment between the lab and the clinical research unit. Soon I am supposed to help with the lab analysis of both human and bacterial (gut fauna) DNA samples. Throughout all of this I am becoming deeply interested in the medical side of psychology, and am even considering gaining the credits neccessary to apply to medical school after I finish my bachelor’s.

Week 6: Global Zero

January 29th, 2014

Elliot Carter ’14, Black Fellow in International Policy

With only two weeks left in my fellowship, I am spending more time reflecting on what I have accomplished thus far and what I still want to accomplish while I’m here. This past week I made progress on a writing assignment that is very important to me, and managed to get a lot of smaller assignments checked off my to do list as well. Things have actually been getting more busy here than ever, so it’s kind of a race at this point to see if I can get everything I want across the finish line before I have to leave.

The writing project I mentioned is the same one I’ve been talking about for a couple of weeks – my blog post. After struggling with some writers block in past weeks I finally got my act together and submitted a rough draft a couple of days ago. It came back with heavy revisions, and I am currently in the (long) process of tweaking the piece into something acceptable for publication on the website hopefully. Content wise, the blog post is essentially an argument why the US’s nuclear weapon budget is a strategic mistake. I use a historical allegory to make this point by comparing the nuclear triad of 2014 to the Maginot Line of WWII. Basic point: woe to the military that can’t remain forward thinking. I hope to have the rough draft in better shape by Friday, at which point I will submit it for approval, and probably another round of revisions.

My work with social media continues to bear fruit. Today I had my second story ‘go viral’ (sort of). I have also greatly exceeded the growth metrics I have been shooting for, so that’s good. The importance of social media in political and professional spheres has been one of the biggest surprises of my fellowship. I really had no idea how seriously some organizations take their online presence in venues like Facebook. It makes sense though, as social media is probably the best way to build grassroots support and get your message out to like-minded people. It also came as a surprise how older people have totally ceded the social media domain to younger people. I think this is a good area to have some experience in, and I’m glad I am going to be able to cite it on my resume.

An area I think I have not done enough in is the production of infographics. In earlier posts I mentioned doing a little research and support work on them, but thus far I have not actually made any of my own. I think this is a field similar to social media, where the digital skills of young people are very much in demand by older people in the field who don’t want to have to learn all the new tricks. I intend to make at least one of my own infographics over the next two weeks before I leave.

The final thing on my radar right now is student symposium. I got an email about it yesterday from Cornell and I really want to take some of the research I have been doing here about nukes and turn it into a full project. The blog post I have been revising is a natural starting point.

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