Experiencing Graduate Level Research
February 21, 2020
I have participated in several research labs over my undergraduate career, but this is the first lab where I’ve gotten a true taste of what graduate school is really like. The primary focus in clinical PhD programs is on conducting research, and that is something I’m beginning to truly understand from my time here. So far, I’ve learned that graduate school is less about getting good grades in your courses, in fact, I’ve heard several people in the clinical program at SPU say that courses mean so much less than your research. I think this will be the biggest transition from undergraduate school to a PhD program. With that being said, my work here has been very fast paced with several tasks at a time, but with vague deadlines. I think this summarizes the experience of graduate school because students work on several projects at a time, juggle other responsibilities like their clinical training with real clients, and then progressively work towards getting their research published. My mentor has allowed me to get a sense of what being a graduate student is like, because I have the freedom to create my own research projects, choose who I want to work with in the lab, and then make individual progress with the research process.
I would like to preface the next portion of this blog by stating that I will be discussing my research on suicide which is often times a sensitive topic. With that being said, I believe this line of research is a very relevant and important area since the reality of this world is that many people feel that their lives are no longer worth living. Some of these individuals die by suicide which affects everyone around them. The research in our lab seeks to address the rates of suicide around the world in order to identify those that are struggling and then safeguard them from harm.
So, after brainstorming ideas about what we could research on suicide, we decided that looking at the relationship between acquired capability of suicide and emotional regulation would be an interesting and important topic for the lab. Acquired capability consists of one’s fearlessness about death and pain tolerance. These characteristics may lead to an individual being more likely to engage in suicidal behaviors, since building up one’s pain tolerance to undergo more pain and having less negative thoughts about death increases one’s potential for these behaviors. Emotional regulation relates to how an individual manages or persists through different negative emotions. For example, good emotional regulation is when someone is able to overcome feelings of sadness in the moment, whereas poor emotional regulation occurs when an individual is unable to manage feelings of sadness. We predict that individual’s with greater emotional regulation capacities will also show increases in acquired capability. In thinking about this relationship it may actually seem contradictory, because elevated emotional regulation means that someone is able to better regulate negative emotions or experiences which seems like it would decrease the risk for suicide. However, according to research, having stronger emotional regulation abilities may imply that someone is able to persist through more negative experiences, such as physical pain, which is a crucial aspect of a suicide attempt since this means overcoming one’s natural instinct to survive. In other words, being able to withstand prolonged amounts of physical or emotional pain (stronger emotional regulation) may lead to increased pain tolerance and less fear about the consequences of death (acquired capability). Thus, enhanced emotional regulation may increase one’s capability for suicide, thereby leading to a greater risk of attempting suicide.
This week I worked on trimming and cleaning electrocardiography (ECG) data from an existing dataset from my mentor’s dissertation project in graduate school. In our project we will be using what’s called heart-rate variability (HRV) to assess emotional regulation. HRV is the natural fluctuation in time between consecutive heart-beats. So, a higher HRV means that there’s more changes in your heart-rate across time, which is generally considered a good thing. HRV, which is derived from ECG data, is believed to be an objective indicator of emotional regulation, meaning that a larger HRV is associated with better emotional regulation. This is why I’ve been cleaning ECG data for the past week. Basically, raw ECG data is in a wave-form that shows the electrical impulses of the heart, and many cool things can be analyzed through these wave patterns, like HRV.
Aside from the research I’ve been working on, I’ve also been preparing for my interview this coming Monday for the clinical PhD program at SPU. I’m excited to meet other people in the program and to get a better sense of what graduate school is like by talking with the faculty and current graduate students. More about this next week.
John is a psychology major and philosophy minor from Fridley, Minnesota.