Student smiling outdoors in RC Psychology shirt

Claire McDonald '22 plans to apply to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology after gaining research experience at Roanoke. This year, Roanoke College was recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the "Great Schools for Psychology Majors."

By Roanoke College News

Psychology offers students opportunity to research, explore range of topics

Claire McDonald ’22 didn’t arrive at Roanoke College three years ago with a firmly planted major in mind. But during the fall semester of her sophomore year, she enrolled in a developmental psychology class, taught by Dr. Danielle Findley-Van Nostrand, assistant professor of psychology.

McDonald, of Annapolis, Maryland, loved the class and, consequently, found her major.

In the spring of her sophomore year, McDonald joined a lab managed by Dr. Findley-Van Nostrand, which focused on adolescent and young adult peer relationships. The experience further cemented McDonald’s choice of major, and she continued her exploration of different areas of psychology.

Fast-forward a few semesters. This fall, McDonald plans to work as a research intern at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem. She plans to apply to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology with a specific interest in research related to dementia and cognitive impairment in older adults — experience McDonald said she hopes to gain at the VA Medical Center.

Research is the bedrock of the student experience in Roanoke College’s psychology department, which brought the College its seventh consecutive “Great Schools for Psychology Majors” recognition in The Princeton Review’s annual “Best Colleges” guidebook, released on Aug. 31.

“We take great pride in making sure our students are exposed to the breadth of psychological science, have choice in the areas for which they want to pursue for their career interests, and are supported through various experiential opportunities such as research and internships," said Dr. Darcey N. Powell, associate professor of psychology.

All psychology majors at Roanoke complete research methods and statistics courses, as well as conduct a group-based research project in their capstone course, Research Seminar. Students’ experience in Research Seminar, usually as seniors, is somewhat unique to undergraduates, and ensures that every psychology major graduating from Roanoke College has the hands-on learning experience of applying the theories and methods they have learned about through the curriculum to conduct an empirical study from beginning to end. 

Many students also work as research assistants in faculty members' labs for credit. Students often begin by assisting with faculty and peers’ research projects before transitioning to completing their own projects in subsequent semesters. Students utilize a range of methodologies — from behavioral experiments in the lab to online surveys used to assess how people react to specific stimuli. Students, along with their faculty research mentors, have also been successful at obtaining research grants to fund their research studies or help with travel costs, most recently from Psi Chi, the international honors society in psychology. 

“Research has played a huge role in my college career and in my development as a student. It has been the most crucial and beneficial part of my college experience.”

Ben Campbell '22, psychology major

Psychology major Ben Campbell ’22 has used his interest in relational aggression, peer social dynamics and gender to formulate a study. He used the study to apply for the College’s Summer Scholars Program and received the prestigious award, enabling him to carry a project titled “Effects of elicited jealousy on masculinity and relational aggression in men.”

Campbell said he found the study quite intriguing — and somewhat costly to conduct. He applied for a Psi Chi undergraduate research grant, and received more than $1,100 to devote toward the study, supervised by Dr. Findley-Van Nostrand.

“I will use this grant to conduct further research on the topic of masculinity and relational aggression in men,” said Campbell, who plans to pursue graduate work in industrial and organizational psychology or social psychology.

In recent years, approximately 30 students each semester have been involved in research. The experiences are important not just for information discovery, but also for deepened learning, enhanced training on specific topics or methods, and the development of skills that graduate training programs and employers in careers utilizing psychology look for and highly value. As a research assistant, students also develop professional and mentoring relationships with their faculty mentor, and refine critical thinking and statistical reasoning skills.  

For example, McDonald, during her junior year, joined a neuroscience lab managed by Dr. David Nichols, associate professor of psychology and department chair. The lab, which focused on vision science (the study of vision), provided her the opportunity to delve into literature review and learn how to use computer software such as MATLAB, a programming platform designed specifically for engineers and scientists.

“The most gratifying moment was getting to run participants in the binocular rivalry study during the spring of 2021,” McDonald said, referring to the study of a particular visual phenomenon. “After spending so much time setting up the study, we finally got to collect data, which can be used in a manuscript.”

Research assistants are also engaged in the dissemination of psychological science. Locally, the psychology department regularly hosts poster sessions to display and highlight student research projects. In recent years, students have traveled to and presented at the Society for Research on Child Development and Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood biennial conferences, as well as the Society for Personality and Social Psychology and Association for Psychological Science annual conferences.

“The experience to contribute to a discipline in a larger way is a special opportunity,” Dr. Findley-Van Nostrand said. “Apart from the professional skills developed, the research experiences students at Roanoke are involved in also contribute to the sense of community we have in the department.”

Students have also worked with their faculty mentors to publish the results of their projects. Publications co-authored with students have been featured in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Impulse, Modern Psychological Studies, and the Journal of Sport Behavior.  

Learn more about psychology at Roanoke College here.