Julia Smirnov and Carlos Santos are among seven students who work in Dr. Jay Michaels' psychology lab.

USFSM students find opportunity at psychology lab

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: August 29, 2017

SARASOTA, Fla. (Aug. 29, 2017) – Julia Smirnov hopes her experience at Dr. Jay Michaels’ psychology lab helps as she seeks admission to graduate school next year. Carlos Santos is hoping the same.

The two are senior research assistants at USF Sarasota-Manatee. Along with a group of undergraduate students, they’re gaining valuable experience assisting in a project that examines how different thinking styles relate to religious belief.

The fact that they’re performing graduate-level research is impressive enough. More surprising is that the students may present their findings at two professional conferences later this year and early next year. Several of the students, including Smirnov and Santos, have submitted posters to the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists (SSSP) annual meeting in Jacksonville in November, as well as to next year’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) conference in Atlanta.

jay michaels usf usfsm

Dr. Jay Michaels

“It’s uncommon for an undergraduate to present research at a professional conference,” Dr. Michaels said. “If their research is accepted, they’ll present alongside PhD students and tenured faculty.”

This rare dynamic isn’t lost on the students. Smirnov said she was thrilled at the prospect of presenting and felt privileged to work alongside Dr. Michaels, an assistant professor in the College of Science & Mathematics.

“Working with Dr. Michaels, he makes it enjoyable,” she said. “He is so committed and passionate about this topic. He urges us to take an objective, scientific approach to our work.”

Santos was appreciative as well. He said he was grateful that he and the half-dozen other students in the psychology lab were encouraged to develop their own hypotheses. Like Smirnov, Santos graduated from USFSM last spring and plans to pursue graduate school next fall. He said he hopes his research with Dr. Michaels elevates his chances of gaining admission.

Generally speaking, the students are exploring the results of scientifically valid surveys of more than 700 people from 50 countries about their attitudes toward religion. The group is the first to examine the surveys, which were distributed globally with the assistance of a UK-based research company.

Dr. Michaels is trying to understand how deeply held faith impacts health and well-being. The students are developing ideas about how people’s unique style of faith may broadly relate to how they think and act. For example, individuals who think about life in a black-and-white, absolutist way may take a similar approach toward religion. Others may think in more flexible ways, which may influence how they approach faith.

In addition to presenting at a conference, the students may also collaborate with their professor on an article for an academic journal.

“It’s incredibly exciting,” Santos said of the work. “I can’t tell you how fortunate I am, and it’s all due to Dr. Michaels. He treats you as an equal and that means a lot to me.”

Dr. Michaels’ collaboration with the students isn’t unusual. USFSM encourages research and mentorship across all of its colleges.

Each spring, the campus holds a “student research showcase” where dozens of students present posters and PowerPoint discussions about their work over the past academic year. Prior to the showcase, they collaborate with their professors who guide them in their research. Dr. Michaels’ research efforts in the psychology lab are an extension and deepening of this idea.

“I would compare it with any master’s level education where the students are using existing research and I’m allowing them to ask their own questions and develop their own hypothesis,” he said. “We have a mentoring relationship.”

He expects one or both of the conferences to accept the students’ work for presentation and will know more in a week or two.

“My goal is to help students attain tangible outcomes that translate into their building their CVs and resumes that can lead to admission to graduate school,” Dr. Michaels said. “They’ve already demonstrated the achievements that are relevant to graduate studies and their careers.”

Santos and Smirnov are continuing their work with Dr. Michaels this fall, along with several other students.

Stefania Warren, a senior, has submitted posters to both the SSSP and SPSP, and lab newcomers Samantha Boddy and Adriana Gaffey have co-authored some of the submitted pieces. New team members Adriana Villar and Anthony Alibro will contribute to projects, as well.

“These students are fortunate to be on small campus like USFSM,” Dr. Michaels said. “At a large university, these opportunities may not be available to undergraduate students.”

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