Philosophy major contributes to cognitive research

snowman in a hat with scarfGetting ready for school on a snowy day can be quite a challenge for young children. In addition to eating breakfast, getting dressed and packing up workbooks, they have to remember extra things like boots, gloves, a hat, and a coat.

Undergraduate researcher Jenna (Eva) Caneva helped turn this real-life scenario into a simple cognition exercise to test the ability of 6-to-10-year-olds to follow instructions.

A junior majoring in philosophy, Caneva came up with the idea when her mentor Sammy Perone, an assistant professor of human development and director of the WSU Childhood Cognition Laboratory, asked for suggestions of simple tasks kids could do in the laboratory that could help them prepare for school.

“Students like Eva play a huge role in my lab,” Perone said. “They are the wheels that make everything go round. When one of them has a great idea that works for a particular experiment, I will run with it.”

Caneva conducts research for Perone and Maria Gartstein, a WSU professor of psychology who studies infant temperament. Caneva is also a peer mentor for the Office of Undergraduate Research and advises other students interested in working with faculty on a broad range of projects.

Jenna Cavena and the winter day testing set up in the WSU Childhood Cognition Laboratory
Jenna Cavena and the winter day testing set up in the WSU Childhood Cognition Laboratory

“Undergraduate research is a lot of work, but it has been a remarkable journey for me,” Caneva said. “Helping other students find professors they would like to work with has also been rewarding.”

Caneva’s experience in Perone and Gartstein’s laboratories has given her an insider’s view on the kind of work she could do if she decided to go to graduate school. Over the past two years, she has learned how the research process works, taught children about how the brain controls their senses, and made connections with graduate students and faculty studying cognitive development in kids.

“The insights I’ve gained from talking to researchers in the field and the opportunity to see what their work actually entails have really helped me narrow my career search,” Caneva said. “For example, I was originally considering a career in human preventative science, but because of my undergraduate research experience, I’m starting to consider working in the field of animal research after I graduate.”

Getting involved

Undergraduate research provides students the opportunity to explore ideas they find interesting in greater depth than is possible in the classroom. Students learn to think critically about problems, use statistics to analyze trends, code data, and gain many other practical skills that will make them more competitive after college, regardless of whether they go to graduate school or enter the workforce.

“Doing undergraduate research helps students understand how what they are learning in their classes can be applied to real world questions,” said Shelley Pressley, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “It is the best way to determine whether or not you will like graduate school and it will help you build a professional network of people who can provide great recommendations for you in the future.”

Countless opportunities

At WSU, opportunities abound for students to work with world-class faculty in fields ranging from agriculture to zoology, and from English to engineering.

The Office of Undergraduate Research hosts information sessions each semester and offers a one-credit research course (UNIV 199) where students can gain skills needed in any research environment and explore the various research opportunities available.

Pressley recommends students searching the WSU website for faculty members doing research in an area they are interested in. The next step is to reach out directly to the researchers.

For example, after Caneva identified Perone and Gartstein as professors she’d like to work with, she contacted the two faculty members via email and then met with each of them to discuss possible roles for her in their laboratories.

Caneva and the Office of Undergraduate Research’s other 12 peer mentors are available throughout the academic year to answer students’ questions and provide guidance.

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Drive to 25

Increasing the percentage of undergraduates involved in research, scholarship and creative discovery is one of 11 metrics WSU is using to measure its progress towards the goal of achieving recognition as one of the top 25 public research universities in the United States.

According to the 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement, around 25 percent of WSU seniors have augmented their education by working with mentors on research and creative projects.


By Will Ferguson, College of Arts and Sciences