Hi everyone, my name is Maria Phelps and I am a senior from Clarksburg, Maryland. I’ll be graduating this May with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a minor in Biology. This semester for my Gil internship I have been working as a research assistant in the Mother Infant Biobehavioral Laboratory, which operates within the UNC School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, and is led by Dr. Karen Grewen. This laboratory studies the effects of prenatal substance exposure on baby brain and behavior development, the effects of maternal anxiety and depression on breastfeeding, and various aspects of the mother-infant relationship. Throughout these past couple of months, I have received an immense amount of support from my mentor, Pam Beiler MSW, LCSW, who has helped make this internship a truly valuable experience.
In this position I have gained a great deal of knowledge and skills that will continue to help me in the future as I hope to continue working in psychology research after graduation. In order to best serve and work with the population of women and children that participate in our research studies, I have been given extensive education on substance use disorders, the effects of prenatal substance use, and caring for infants with prenatal substance use exposure. As part of my onboarding process I was tasked with reading a vast collection of academic journal articles and other resources that contained this information. Additionally, I was able to attend multiple webinars in order to create and present a review of the most recent literature on prenatal and postnatal cannabis use to the rest of our research team.
In terms of new skills, I have been trained to collect and enter various forms of data including biological (DNA cheek swabs, saliva samples, blood pressure and heart rate readings), behavioral, and cognitive. Some of this training included learning how to instrument participants with ECG electrodes, as well as how to use Mindware Mobile technology in order to collect and monitor cardiac data. Additionally, I have been trained to score the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development, which is a screening instrument that measures child development across five domains: cognitive, receptive, and expressive communication, and fine and gross motor items.
Regarding data entry, I have gained significant experience working with the REDCap database. Recently, I have been tasked with going through every participant file and ensuring that the data was properly entered into REDCap. In addition to the data I previously mentioned, I have also been trained to enter data from psychological questionnaires (i.e. Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, PTSD Checklist, Parenting Stress Index) into REDCap. This data entry experience has given me great exposure to the various kinds of data that are utilized in psychophysiological research, which has been very valuable to me.
In addition to these skills, I have been trained to assist my team members in conducting in-lab study sessions with mothers and their infants/children. For our Mood, Mother, and Child (MMC) Study, I was trained to administer the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) to mothers. The TSST is a standardized laboratory procedure that induces psychosocial stress in participants so that researchers can measure and compare various aspects of the stress response across individuals. In my role as a “committee member” for the TSST, it is very important that I follow the standardized protocol exactly, which includes maintaining a neutral facial expression, withholding social engagement and positive feedback, and appearing professional at all times. Learning how to successfully administer the TSST gave me the experience to confidently interact with participants in a very structured laboratory environment, which will be very useful in my future research goals. This semester I have also been trained to assist in our laboratory visits for the Baby Brain study, which consist of a 10-minute video-recorded “free-play” session with a mom and her baby. Finally, I have been trained to prepare and monitor infant MRI sessions at the UNC Biomedical Research Imaging Center. This was my first experience with neuroimaging data, and I truly enjoyed learning about the process.
I am so thankful for my internship experience thus far, and for all of the people who have made it so amazing. I have developed many research and professional skills that will continue to benefit me as I graduate from college and pursue a career in research and academia. I am beyond excited to move into this next phase of life and be able to apply all of the skills and experiences that I have gained from the Gil internship!