Polygence blog / Student Spotlights

Psychology and Mental Health Research Projects at the 8th Symposium of Rising Scholars

2 minute read

This past March, over 160 students presented their research projects at Polygence’s 8th Symposium for Rising Scholars. These researchers conducted incredible work, and in this article, I will highlight research from the psychology session about childhood and adolescence. I found it fascinating how the students had such interrelated yet distinct psychology research projects. The researchers focused on similar topics, such as mental health and social media. However, each scholar brought their own unique background, interests, and style to their work. Read on to learn more about these excellent projects!

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Research Projects about Mental Health in Children  

Several Polygence researchers conducted psychological literature reviews about mental health in children. Lili Todorinova researched the effects of anxiety on children and learning. After describing the types and causes of anxiety, she highlighted ways to treat it. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a short-term, skills-focused treatment that is effective in treating anxiety disorders. Importantly, it also works for people from difficult cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Researchers have also begun using ketamine, a psychedelic drug that offers fast relief, for helping people who haven’t benefited from other treatments. Additionally, anxiety can make it very difficult for students to learn in school, so teachers can measure anxiety with specific anxiety scales to better understand and treat the prevalence of anxiety within their classrooms. Teachers can then use cognitive appraisal and interference to help students interpret anxiety-inducing events. Lili concluded by advocating the importance of developing school-wide prevention programs for anxiety. 

Similarly, Israa Fyaz synthesized several papers in her review article about the neurobiological and psychological effects of childhood stress and maltreatment. In her presentation, she discussed how maltreatment, which can be physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect, puts children at higher risk for mental illnesses, behavioral dilemmas, poor physical health, and suicide. It also makes the limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for fight or flight instincts, more sensitive and affects other parts of the brain. However, some children who experience childhood trauma do not develop psychiatric symptoms. This resilience is due to genetics, the presence of a support system, and other factors. In the future, Israa wants to continue sharing this work by publishing a research paper and presenting it at more conferences. Additionally, she wants to be a neurosurgeon and will major in neuroscience in college. 

Maria Rutkowska’s cousin inspired her to conduct research on ADHD, a common disorder in children. Her cousin finds ADHD medication ineffective, so in her research review article, Maria described an emerging treatment for ADHD called CRISPR/CAS9. ADHD, which stands for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is highly influenced by genetics. Thus, the goal of CRISPR is to manipulate genes related to ADHD directly and precisely. A major obstacle to CRISPR is the blood-brain-barrier. Essentially, the brain will reject CRISPR because it doesn’t know why it’s there. Neuroscientists are working on “tricking” the brain into accepting CRISPR by using nanotechnology. Maria’s work will soon be published in the International Youth Neuroscience Association. She has also continued her work by writing more research review articles and contacting specialists for support, including PhD students at Duke University. By the way, Maria won Second Place for Conference Talks at the Symposium. Congrats, Maria! 

Research Projects about Media that Children and Adolescents Consume

The other Polygence researchers in the session focused on media that young people consume, which of course has ties to mental health. Mohid Khan collected and analyzed posts from Reddit to investigate how adolescents use social media to navigate their mental health. He collected 400 total posts/comments from the subreddit r/teenagers using four search queries: mental health, depression, anxiety, and self-esteem. He gave each post/comment a number according to Uses and Gratification Theory, which says that people use media for five possible reasons. Overall, he found that teenagers used social media primarily for social interaction and support, followed by entertainment. Mohid concluded his talk with three recommendations based on his research: 1) Share your troubles with others because people usually have a positive response; 2) Show the gravity of your troubles when sharing with others; 3) Become an active participant in online communities. Mohid plans to continue this research by applying to neuroscience and biology research labs to understand adolescents’ minds as they’re deciding which social media to use. He also wants to conduct a survey about social media use with people in his state. 

In her research, Zoe Renazile-Winter turned a critical eye to her favorite TV shows from childhood. Specifically, she examined how the presence of racial stereotypes in popular TV culture reflects society and negatively impacts youth. She synthesized psychological literature and provided historical contextualization for distinct racial stereotypes. Researchers have found that youths’ self-esteem was correlated with how positively/negatively their racial and gender group was depicted in media. To make these issues concrete, Zoe presented four examples of stereotypes from youth media: Tiffany Chen from Bunk’d, an Asian girl held to high intellectual standards; Trish de la Rosa from Austin and Ally, a sassy Latinx girl who had 307 jobs over the course of the show and was constantly fired for being lazy; Ivy Wentz from Good Luck Charlie, who was known for being the white female lead’s black best friend and had no storylines of her own; and Serena van der Woodsen, the white and privileged main character of Gossip Girl. Despite the presence of stereotypes, Zoe pointed out how watching these shows provides a valuable learning opportunity to understand how society perceives members of distinct racial groups. Her mom was the one who inspired her to think critically about these issues. 

If you want to do research about these types of important topics, you can apply for our mentorship program here or check out my article on how to do psychology experiments. You can also learn more about fun ways to explore your passions and research opportunities for high school students. I’m going to leave you with an insightful and inspiring quote from Lili’s presentation: “Preventing the issue rather than dealing with it when it already exists is the key to true progress in mental health.” 

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