Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Silverman Says Students Bring Creativity & Perspective to Lab

Student interns attend weekly lab meetings with Dr. Silverman's staff.
Spend a few minutes with Dr. Laura Silverman and it becomes clear she genuinely enjoys working with students and appreciates the perspective and creativity that students bring to her research.

“When you have been working in a field for long time you take certain things for granted. Students don’t, they ask questions,” says Silverman, who says she tries to create an open environment where students feel comfortable asking questions and contributing ideas.

An Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Neurodevelopmental & Behavioral Pediatrics at the medical center, Silverman’s clinical time is spent helping parents of children with autism spectrum disorders to learn parenting skills that they can use to help their children succeed at home.  She also works in an autism diagnostic clinic, evaluating children who may show signs of an autism spectrum disorder.

Silverman studies communication and music perception in autism.  She is especially interested in how children with autism process verbal and non-verbal information, and how these abilities affect their social functioning in day-to-day life.

She says the challenge with involving students in research projects is that they may only be with her for a summer or a semester, allowing them to see only one phase of a study.  This could make it difficult for them to comprehend the bigger picture.

“What I try to do is present them with some tasks that are related to the larger studies in the lab and also a side project that they can complete independently.  This way students can leave the lab and feel like they have accomplished something of their own,” she says.

For example, as part of her study on how children with autism process language and gesture she had her summer interns create video games that were ultimately used in her eye-tracking experiments. They helped to script, film, and produce videos that ultimately became part of the video game tasks and then helped run pilot studies to see whether the video games actually worked as expected.  In order to create an effective experimental task, the students had to first learn about autism so that they could anticipate how the kids might respond to the games that they created.

And, although students are not involved in the direct testing of our subjects with autism, Silverman says, “We always make sure they get an opportunity to observe us when we are seeing our research subjects.” She requires attendance at weekly lab meetings so students are kept abreast of all the research going on, and they witness and participate in discussion and problem solving.

“Working with Laura greatly influenced my career,” says former student Alison Canfield, ’10 BCS. “I had the opportunity to explore my interest in autism, as well as develop my own research skills.

“During my two years as her study coordinator, I was also able to observe some of her clinical work, which further motivated me to pursue a career in clinical psychology. My experience in Laura's lab heightened my interest in studying autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities more broadly, which I am now doing as a graduate student in the University of Connecticut's Clinical Psychology graduate program,” Canfield said.

Hamza Chengazi, ’14, who is majoring in Neuroscience with minors in Music and Psychology, has been working in the Silverman lab for a little over a year.

“I worked a lot with scoring and verifying neuropsychological tests and protocols, but my main project has been developing a novel coding system for a verbal fluency test so that I can test potential explanations for verbal fluency differences between typically developing controls and persons with autism,” he said.

“I found this research opportunity by emailing a faculty member that had been taking students for research in the past; she referred me to Dr. Silverman,” Chengazi says.

“The biggest recommendation I would give to students is to look into the different types of research that doctors and professors are doing, find something that interests you, and send them an email inquiry.

“In my experience, they are very friendly, and even if they don't have openings themselves, they are glad to recommend their friends or colleagues. It is important to remember to take initiative --you have to go out and pursue research opportunities, as they aren't just going to fall into your lap.”

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