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Psychology undergraduates thrive through research experiences, building connections with faculty

Author: Brian Wallheimer

Katie Paige Katie Paige

For Katie Paige and Laura Heiman, research hasn’t just shaped their undergraduate experiences—it’s shaped their futures, as well.

The two senior psychology majors have both gained significant research experience throughout their time at Notre Dame, writing senior theses and working closely with faculty members as they study topics ranging from depression to childhood development.

“These students stand out in terms of their commitment to service, even here at Notre Dame, where service is an important aspect of student life,” said Anré Venter, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Psychology. “They both show tremendous intellectual maturity and curiosity, with an openness to learning and a willingness to take the responsibility for their education that is quite remarkable.”

Paige got her start in research the summer after her first year, when she worked in a lab at the University of Michigan focused on substance use and suicide. The experience shifted her interests from clinical work toward a research focus that has landed her in the labs of Professor David Watson, the Andrew J. McKenna Family Professor of Psychology; Laura Miller-Graff, the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Assistant Professor of Psychology; and Professor Anne Simons.

Laura Heiman Laura Heiman

For her senior thesis, Paige is exploring the pathway from substance use during adolescence to depression in young adults. She sees a link between neurobiological development at those young ages and the effects seen in later years.

“There are theories that adolescent brains are changing so much, substance use may contribute to negative outcomes,” Paige said. “If we know something about a person’s tendency to develop depression, we may be able to better prevent it and treat it.”

The ability to make a difference has inspired Paige’s research, which she will continue next year in a Ph.D. program.

“Depression has always interested me because it’s so prevalent,” she said. “I realized that if you’re good at what you do and you’re successful in research, the potential to have a widespread impact on a whole population of people is there.”

Paige credits advisers and mentors who gave her opportunities to explore new fields of study and thrive when she found her fit.

“You see that reflected in my lab experiences here,” Paige said. “I’ve worked in three labs at Notre Dame in the past three years, and I’ve gotten to do a lot of hands-on work. They trust their students, and you get so much experience.”

Like Paige, Heiman is interested in early interventions that can have an impact on childhood development. She’s been involved with Professor E. Mark Cummings and his lab’s work on emotional security theory.

Heiman wanted to apply those ideas to children whose communities are changing due to waves of migration in and around Europe, so she spent part of last summer in Italy, working with Italian professors to develop a study that would measure how children perceive their communities based on an influx of refugees.

“It was very rewarding to me as an experience to be on the ground and working on a project like this and just be applying all the skills I learned so far to a real-life situation,” Heiman said. “Working cross-culturally, I was able to see how research is done elsewhere and learn some lessons on how to work with colleagues that might have different approaches to a problem.” 

Finding a passion for research as an undergraduate, Heiman hopes her work will be helpful in the development of interventions or therapies that can improve lives of young people.

“If you are able to intervene with a child as they are trying to make sense of the world around them, you could maybe help them in a greater way than you could help someone later on in life,” she said.

After graduation, Heiman hopes to work with L’Arche, a nonprofit that provides homes and workplaces for people with and without intellectual disabilities, then possibly attend graduate school.

Support from faculty to try new things and take a wide range of classes has given her a breadth of knowledge she believes will serve her well in the future.

“It’s been really helpful having the encouragement early on to get into a research lab,” she said. “I’ve been able to see real applications of what research looks like as you’re doing it. I saw how you can apply the skills you’re learning to what you do in life.”