Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Conducting Cognitive Research in Real World Settings

January 28, 2020
Kayla  Sansevere CIRP REU and mentor
Kayla Sensevere with her Injury Science REU Program Mentor Elizabeth Walshe, PhD

A note from Elizabeth Walshe, PhD: Today we are pleased to welcome a guest blog post from Kayla Sansevere, a senior at Arcadia University, who participated in the Injury Science Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at CIRP in 2019 and continues to work at the Center as a Research Assistant with the Neuroscience of Driving team.

For the longest time, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in clinical or counseling psychology. I wrongly believed that a degree in Psychology was limited to the therapy setting. As I progressed through the research-focused Psychology curriculum at Arcadia University, my knowledge of the field grew and my career aspirations changed. With each course, I became more and more interested in psychological research. But to which specific research area should I plan to dedicate my life?

I knew I was interested in attention, perception, and performance, some of the main research areas of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, but I assumed this meant I would spend my days and nights recording how quickly people could press a computer button during a memory test. I also wasn’t fully aware of the career opportunities in these research concentrations aside from academia.

Last summer as a National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored Injury Science Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) student at CIRP, I learned that cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience can be investigated in applied settings beyond the controlled environment of a laboratory. At CIRP, I was able to refine my research interests while also learning more about the different career paths I could pursue post-graduation.

During my summer at CIRP, I had the opportunity to contribute to and conduct research under the mentorship of Elizabeth Walshe, PhD. In collaboration with the Neuroscience of Driving Program, which includes Dr. Walshe, Flaura Winston, MD, PhD, Chelsea Ward McIntosh, MS, and Dan Romer, PhD. I assisted with a project that investigated the neuropsychological factors underlying risky driving behavior in developing young drivers. The main goal of this project was to determine if certain cognitive abilities are associated with self-reported driving behaviors and driving performance in a virtual driving environment.

With this fascinating project, I had access to resources that my university lacks, such as an eye tracker and virtual driving skills assessment, to directly examine the implications of cognitive research in everyday life settings. Since my past research experiences were confined to a lab setting, I wasn’t aware cognitive research in applied settings was even possible.

Pursuing My Own Research Question

All of the research team members were incredibly supportive when I proposed an independent research question within this larger project to explore my research interests. I investigated how a ringing cell phone affects young drivers' eye behavior and driving performance, and I presented my findings at the 2019 CIRP Student Research Day. 

Since then, I’ve expanded this independent research question as the basis for my year-long undergraduate research thesis, and I’ve been privileged to continue to work alongside the Neuroscience of Driving team as a Research Assistant since my REU program ended in August 2019. I’m hoping that my findings will contribute to the growing body of literature that describes the dangerous effects of cell phone use while driving. Also, the next time someone asks, “Since you study Psychology, does that mean you can read my mind?”, I can reply, “No, but I have an idea of what it looks like while you’re driving.”

My REU experience at CIRP has reaffirmed my decision to pursue research as a career. I’m currently waiting to hear back from Psychology and Cognitive Science PhD programs, and I hope to one day work with Dr. Walshe and other members of the Neuroscience of Driving Program as a colleague rather than as a Research Assistant.

**Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to Research in Action to have the latest in child injury prevention delivered to your inbox.**