Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

High School Social Psychology Research Student Luke produces survey on COVID-19

14 minute read

Luke is a junior at San Marino High School in San Marino, CA. He started his Polygence project in January 2020 working with his mentor Gabor, a Stanford research scientist who works on social psychological interventions in education. For his project, Luke authored and conducted a psychological survey assessing how people’s lifestyles and mindsets have changed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Luke and Gabor are currently assessing the data collected through his survey and working on writing an APA-style paper with the results. You can hear more about Luke’s amazing experience with Polygence in the interview below.

What motivated you to seek out research and project-based learning as a high school junior?

Going into college, you obviously want to put your best foot forward, and do as much as you can to prepare. People always talk about the value of internships and research, especially if you want to study STEM, but I think the biggest impetus for me to seek out research came from my dad. He does a lot of research, and I was asking him about it. He said it's best to start early, and that I should look online for opportunities. He even suggested I basically do something now by myself, but that's kind of hard for a high schooler. I did want to do research that was largely driven by me, but maybe have a little more help and guidance. I told my college counselor that I was looking for something to do with research or mentorship, and she scouted out Polygence, which has given me that opportunity to work one-on-one with a mentor. It really fits my needs.

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Did you have any experience doing research projects before applying to Polygence? What did you come to us interested in?

This is the first research mentorship program that I've done. I've done enrichment courses and extracurricular learning outside of school, but this is the first project-oriented, one-on-one experience I’ve had.

My ultimate goal is to be a psychiatrist, so I was looking to study things like biology, chemistry and psychology. I wasn't one hundred percent sure what type of project I would be doing, but everything about Polygence sounded really cool. In my application, I put that I was interested in the biology and chemistry behind mental processes, so that's definitely a mix of a lot of different fields and a very broad topic. Honestly, I was interested in all of it, and I was happy to go wherever that took me. I was matched with a mentor who I think worked out perfectly - Gabor, a Stanford social psychologist. We've been applying stuff from all of these different fields in my project.

So you came into Polygence with some topics—how did you refine that throughout your mentorship experience into the project you’re working on now?

After my first session with Gabor, we started going through papers and the different scientific literature about various topics. I would suggest something I wanted to learn about, and he would say, “Okay, read this, this, and this, and we’ll have a discussion next Sunday.” It was really a straightforward, easy process to get to learn a lot about different things. And then from there, once our number of sessions started to dwindle down, we wanted to do more of a summary exercise, a way to use what I’ve learned and apply it.

That has culminated in the project that we're working on now, a survey I’m doing. It’s actually based on the current coronavirus outbreak. We're looking at people's responses and mindset changes, how they're adapting, what parts of their life have really been affected by this whole crisis. We're trying to examine differences between age groups and between culture groups. It’s a fun thing, looking at what people are thinking about right now.

How did you go about designing your survey?

My mentor Gabor is a research assistant at Stanford, so he's very familiar with making these and worked closely with me at building the survey. Designing the survey was a major focus of our project. The results were obviously going to be cool, but the learning process came a lot more from the building.

For several sessions, we went into question-making and looking at what our goals are for the survey. It was a lot of fun. A lot of it revolved around looking at other work and asking, what can we take from this? What do we not want to repeat that's already been done? From there, we went more into formatting, looking to eliminate bias. Even just the ordering of the questions can lead to some bias. It was definitely a very delicate thing to approach, so we took our time with that.

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What have you learned about designing questions for a psychological survey? What unexpected things do you have to take into consideration?

I think people don't realize in general how much ethical consideration has to go into making each individual question. You have to make sure it's for a generalized demographic, it's not going to ostracize anyone, it doesn't play on their prior conceptions or anything. It’s a surprisingly intense and delicate process, making sure that each question is presentable to each person equally and that those biases are in check.

How did you go about sharing your survey and getting people to take it?

We made our survey using Qualtrics—after designing questions on Google Docs, we migrated them to their proper format in the survey software. Then, it was my job to spread the survey to as many people as I could, making sure to get a varied age range in order to do age comparisons later on. I posted on social media; emailed my friends, family, and school; flexed a little bit towards college sport recruiters; and begged my relatives to spread it to their friends as well. The result was a substantial data set that we are really happy with that included a lot of teenagers (my age) and a lot of middle-aged adults (parents', aunts', and uncles' ages).

Now you’re analyzing your data and working on a scientific paper. What new technical skills are you developing in this phase of your project?

In school, I had a quite limited use of Google Sheets or Excel. While I used it from time to time in chemistry lab, in this project, the goals are much less streamlined. Rather than following a procedure and answering the post-lab questions, we are formulating our own questions and discovering new ones as we go on. This sort of amorphous approach has made handling the data really fun, if a bit daunting at times. I had never even heard of SPSS before this portion of our project, but learning how to model data, compare means, and manipulate variables has all been a novel experience for me.
Surprisingly, I have really enjoyed working on our APA-style manuscript. Although some of the section names also mirror that of a chemistry lab report, the fluidity and freedom to really personalize it has made it really interesting. In the introduction, for instance, I got to do research on COVID-19 related materials, cross-applying specific parts that could connect to our study. Working to extract only the key parts of data is something that I have definitely improved at, so I can summarize the important aspects in paragraphs instead of pages.

What are some skills you’ve developed and refined throughout your Polygence mentorship?

Number one for sure is communication. You don't really get as much practice with that in a normal high school setting, because you're just one in the crowd. You could not raise your hand ever and still pass the class. But with Polygence, you know, there's no one else to raise their hands, so I'm the one really taking control of where the project is going. Being able to articulate what my interests are, what sort of things I like and dislike, has become a very critical aspect of success with Polygence.
Additionally, on a more research-oriented level, I’ve learned to compare prior literature and prior studies, look for the key parts, and really be able to really extract the knowledge from these complicated scientific articles. This is something I’m much more capable of doing now thanks to reading so much through Polygence.

Have your goals and vision for your project changed throughout the process of working on it? If so, how?

Going into it, Gabor and I both thought that our study would go unpublished, and that it would be a baseline research experience for me. However, in one specific part of the survey, we did something kind of like an experiment. We adapted Lawrence Kohlberg's historic Heinz dilemma, in which a man steals medicine for his pregnant wife. We altered this to fit with the current situation. In the survey, we had some participants consider the scenario of a poor Peter who hoards food and supplies from the grocery store, and we had other participants consider a poor Peter who takes the same action but for the sake of his pregnant wife. We got really good results for this part, as people found the second version of Peter to be much more sympathetic and considerate even though he hoarded in both instances. With this in mind, Gabor and I are looking to extend this into a future project, perhaps one that will be officially published.

Could you talk a little bit about your mentor Gabor? Is he different from teachers or tutors you've had in the past?

I'm lucky—I think I got matched with someone who is the perfect fit for me. One of the things Gabor does is called interventions. Basically, he'll go into schools or workplaces with a team and work on helping solve social issues, like bullying or feelings of belonging. In places like school, I think there is not enough focus on mental health and mental wellness. Doing work like that is one of the major reasons for my goal of becoming a psychiatrist. Seeing that parallel between my interests and Gabor’s, I was immediately like wow, this person gets me, and we can totally work together.
Another aspect that Gabor brings to the table that I don't see in my other mentors or teachers is his enthusiasm for the project. I would not be able to get nearly as far with it if he wasn't as thrilled as I was. I think without him, I maybe wouldn't have even set my sights on COVID-19-oriented work. But we came to that conclusion together, and he’s been instrumental to my success.

How did Gabor help you weigh the options for your future, as someone interested in psychology and medicine?

I spent a long time debating whether I want to be a psychologist or psychiatrist. You know, the line between those two is not as clear and well-established as it is between some other groups. In a free-flowing conversation during one of our sessions about education, I brought up this question with Gabor. He really helped me define the differences between those two as we went through the background material for my project. The major distinction is that psychiatry is a medical field while psychology is more of a scientific, observational field of study, where patients are not the focus. Both of my parents are doctors, so that has been no small part in influencing me in choosing psychiatry. I think that in order to make the largest impact, having that ability to administer medicine and to have a more personalized connection with patients is really important, not just for those people but hopefully for the field at large.

The great thing about Polygence is that Gabor is the mentor, but our conversations don’t just have to be focused on the project or about learning. He helps me with making decisions and advancing my knowledge of the field. I think overall, it’s more than just “here, learn this, do this”—there's a lot of personal connection between me and Gabor.

How has Polygence influenced your process of planning your college experience?

Since Gabor has helped me figure out I want to do psychiatry, that means that I'll be doing more hospital volunteering or general pre-med research and study in college. You don’t go to undergrad for psychiatry—you go to undergrad for your pre-med classes, and then eventually you can specialize. It's definitely a long journey. That's sort of what the immediate future looks like for me.
I also want to touch upon the fact that schools I'm interested in are not just in the US. I've been looking at a lot of international schools, so having a mentor that’s a Hungarian graduate, who knows a lot about Europe and what's good there, was really great. He’s helped me see what type of options I have available to me and where I might be the best fit.

What has Polygence contributed to your life during the vast uncertainty of the global COVID-19 pandemic?

I sincerely appreciate just how flexible the mentors at Polygence are—we can meet up when it is best for both of us, and it feels like more of a team effort than a burden like a school class. In the pandemic especially, I know a lot of outside courses or activities are being cancelled, so doing Polygence is optimal for a time like this and is one of the few things I’ve been able to count on during this time.

What advice would you give a student who is about to begin their Polygence mentorship?

Definitely keep an open mind. One of the great parts about Polygence is that your mentor knows a lot about what they're talking about. You obviously have your own interests, but really collaborating and being able to find where both of you think that the project should go moving forward, I think is the most beneficial thing. Additionally, I think that it’s important to recognize that your mentor is there for you. They are accommodating and very willing to deal with your schedule changes or things you’re stressed out about, and that they're not just there for the project. They're there to be personal mentors and to assist you in achieving whatever you want to achieve.

I’d recommend trying to get Polygence to be a consistent thing in your life. You want to obviously use a lot of time to work on the project and learn, but really just being able to interact consistently with a mentor is beneficial. Not just for becoming a better student or better in academia, but a better person in general. You can communicate better, you can have this kind of relationship which you probably haven’t had before, because you don't really have mentors in high school normally. I think being able to experience that, not just for its benefits to your knowledge but to your character, is really valuable.

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