FPG Integrates Pioneering Research Into Undergraduate Education

Date Published: 02/20/2013

Before UNC senior Margo Williams enrolled in Psychology 395, she had no idea a single course would draw on both her majors, involve critical contributions to cutting-edge research on young children, and cement her choice of careers. Now, the 22-year-old Charlotte native is applying to PhD programs in clinical psychology, and of chief interest to the programs interviewing her is the work she does for PSYC 395 with Dr. Barbara Goldman at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG).

Since the start of the school year, Williams, a psychology and Spanish double major, has been working in FPG's Infant and Child Assessment Lab, part of the Behavioral Measurement and Audiovisual Center, first as a volunteer and now to fulfill her requirements for PSYC 395. The course is designed to offer students opportunities to work on research projects under the tutelage of a mentor.

“It’s a real life application of what we’re learning in other classes,” says Williams. “It’s an amazing experience.”

At FPG, Williams applies her psychology training to a research study that relies on her careful administration of touch-screen computer assessments to young children, testing their working memory and attention levels. Her additional responsibilities include scoring recorded assessments and parents’ reports of their children’s typical behavior.

Williams’s coursework at FPG serves several innovative UNC School of Medicine studies headed by Dr. John Gilmore. Gilmore’s research is designed to improve knowledge about how the brain develops in young children, including twins, in order to understand the ways in which early differences contribute to later development.

Before her senior year, Williams wasn’t sure what she would do after graduation, but the opportunity to sharpen her skills on such research at FPG has changed that. “It helped me figure out I want to go to grad school in clinical psychology,” she says.

According to Williams, FPG has prepared her for this next step on her career ladder. “Research is such an important part of graduate school. In psychology, you’re expected to know how to conduct research. My time at FPG has been incredibly helpful.”

Her responsibilities at FPG also united her two majors. Williams had spent a semester in Seville, Spain, through UNC’s Study Abroad program, and at FPG her Spanish prepared her to navigate the language barrier. “Some of these kids, especially the twins, are primarily Spanish-speaking,” says Williams. “This is the first vocation where I’ve ever been able to combine my majors.”

She attributes the fusion of Spanish into her work to her mentor for PSYC 395. Dr. Barbara Goldman, longtime FPG scientist and director of the Behavioral Measurement and Audiovisual Center, leads Williams’s research internship.

“Dr. Goldman is great,” says Williams. “She wants each of us to get the most out of the course, out of our experience at FPG, and she tailors our involvement to what we want to do. She worked Spanish into it for me.”

For some assessment measures, Williams has helped to translate instructions, which all of the staff can use with children who are more comfortable speaking Spanish. She also administers touch-screen assessments in Spanish.

“I found a population I love to work with,” says Williams. “And it’s made me want to work with this population even more in the future.”

Goldman feels Williams’s observational skills and understanding of human behavior have helped to make her an excellent fit for the lab. “Margo is wonderful to work with,” adds Goldman. “She has a calming and supportive style with children and a fantastic work ethic. And although I am doing what I can to help her get into grad school, I will definitely miss her next year.”

For years, Goldman, who also is a research associate professor in the Department of Psychology, has been utilizing the skills of undergraduates in order to advance research projects for FPG and its partners at UNC.

“I try to find ways that students can help me in the lab while learning or practicing skills that will be useful to them in their future lives,” she says. “Even for students who choose not to go into the kinds of work that they do here as undergraduates, the skills they learn and practice—and being able to see the scientific way of thinking in action—are valuable in whatever they choose to do next.”

Goldman says that for students who at first are only partially inclined to a career in research, hands-on experience through classes like PSYC 395 often is the clincher. “They can see and feel what it’s like to have an idea, and test it out themselves, and maybe discover something new. That’s the hook for us researchers.”

Goldman recalled how the opportunity to do her own research as an undergraduate had shaped her career. “It was a huge influence on my own decisions about what I wanted to do next.”

And Goldman’s pupil, Margo Williams, has no doubt that her participation in pioneering research at FPG has changed the trajectory of her own life.

“I’ve learned what I want to focus on,” she says. “I know what I want to continue with.”

FPG grants permission to publish this story in part or in its entirety.

D. Shaw