Faculty Name:
David Strayer


Faculty College:
Social & Behavioral Science


Project Description:

**This project is a part of the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR), which provides undergraduate students with an intensive 10-week research experience under the mentorship of a University of Utah faculty member. SPUR 2021 begins on May 26 and ends on August 5. If you are interested in this project, please review all program information on the SPUR site. If you wish to apply to this project, you must apply using the SPUR 2021 application.**

Writers, philosophers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike have long believed that spending time in nature is good for the mind and the body. In line with this, many researchers have studied how exposure to nature can improve an individual’s mood, emotions, stress physiology, and attentional capacity. In our lab at the University of Utah, we use electroencephalography (EEG) to explore whether or not immersion in nature changes our brain activity. To do this, we take participants on a 5-day camping trip and record their brain activity before, during, and after the trip. So far, we have found changes in three brain wave components called the error-related negativity, the reward positivity, and the P300. However, access to nature is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more people move to urban centers and protection of wilderness spaces continues to be threatened. Therefore, the current project will explore if viewing images of nature is powerful enough to elicit changes in these brain components. Participants’ brain activity will be recorded after viewing images of either natural or urban environments, and we will compare these laboratory-collected results to the previous findings we observed on the camping trips. This research is important, as it may help answer the long-standing question regarding what “dosage” of nature is required to elicit changes in the brain. This research may also reveal a more accessible option for individuals that don’t have access to real nature, such as those in prisons or hospitals, to gain the benefits associated with nature exposure.

Opportunity Type:

This is a paid research position

Student Role:

The SPUR student can be expected to play a very hands-on role with this project. While much of the “conceptualization” stage of the project will already be complete, we would like the student to be involved in each stage of the project beyond that. Specifically, we will expect the student to be primarily responsible for the data collection portion of the study. This would involve recruiting participants, scheduling them to come into the lab, and collecting the EEG data while participants complete a series of cognitive tasks. After data collection is complete, we plan on having the student involved in the pre-processing of the EEG data and the creation of the event-related potential plots. As the program requires, we expect that the student will also present their work at the end of the summer and will encourage the student to submit their findings to the undergraduate research journal. The student can expect to gain extensive experience in EEG research- particularly in “capping” participants and learning the basics of MatLab and R for data processing and analysis. Remote Contingency Plan: If SPUR cannot occur in person this year, the SPUR student will help us get another nature and cognition-related project off the ground--our Nature and Cognition Citizen Science Project. Because it is difficult to collect large quantities of data in nature due to logistical concerns and time constraints, we have decided to leverage the many organizations that already go on nature trips on a regular basis, such as outdoor education programs or wilderness therapy programs. We are working on creating a large-scale study in which citizen scientists, or lay data collectors, will be trained to collect data on a volunteer basis, on their own terms, and enter it into a massive online database. The SPUR student will create online training materials for these citizen scientists, set up the database that will store the data, and apply for IRB approval. If the study begins before the end of the summer, the SPUR student will also help train our citizen scientists over Zoom and will advertise the study on social media and email list-servers. Since this study is designed to run entirely online, all of the described work can be performed remotely. The goal of this project is two-fold. Our first goal is to collect a larger quantity of data than would otherwise be feasible over a much more diverse participant sample, and over a broader geographical area. Our second goal is to provide an educational opportunity for our citizen scientists, and those they collect data from, on the scientific method.

Student Benefits:

This experience will be valuable for a student no matter what they choose in life. If the student wishes to go to graduate school, this sort of direct research experience will be crucial to the success of their application. We provide direct experience in measuring and understanding the human brain with EEG and other behavioral tools. If the student is interested in neuroscience, this experience will allow them to master the skills of collecting and processing EEG data. In addition, the student will have a unique opportunity to participate in open science practices. We plan to submit this study as a Registered Report, meaning we will go through the peer-review processes prior to collecting any data, ensuring honest science and strong hypotheses. However, beyond simply research experience for graduate school, we believe that our lab fosters development in a number of skills that transfer beyond the research environment. Students will learn project management and organizational skills, the soft skills associated with conducting human research studies, and gain valuable computer skills such as coding in Matlab, R and Python. A deeper understanding of the scientific method, as well as how our brain’s attentional system works, will also aid them in their everyday lives and make them critical consumers of science.

Project Duration:

35-40 hours per week on research and program-related activities, begins May 26, 2021, and ends August 5, 2021

Minimum Requirements:

Admission to the program is competitive. Applicants must meet all of the following criteria: 1) be a matriculated, degree-seeking undergraduate student in the Fall 2021 semester (beginning or continuing college career in Fall 2021 and not graduating before December 2021; concurrent enrollment while in high school does not meet this eligibility requirement). Applicants do not need to be a University of Utah student. 2) eligible to work in the United States: If you are a University of Utah Dreamer (with or without DACA), you are eligible to participate. If you are a Dreamer from a different institution: If you have DACA, you are eligible to participate. If you do not have DACA, you are able to participate and gain research experience, but might not be able to be compensated. For more information, please contact Megan Shannahan at megan.shannahan@utah.edu or 801-581-2478. If you are an international student or scholar, you must either a) be a degree-seeking undergraduate student at an American institution of higher education and verify with your institution’s international center that your visa allows you to participate in this program, OR b) possess documentation that establishes your eligibility to work in the United States (if you hold US citizenship, it is likely you have these documents). 3) able to commit to approximately 35-40 hours per week of employment at the University of Utah for the entire duration of the program (May 26-August 5, 2021). 4) at least 18 years old by May 24, 2021 (required if you wish to use on-campus housing; preferred if you will not be using on-campus housing). Please note that no previous college coursework or previous research experience is required.