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2016 SRE Program Participant Profiles: ALANA COOPER

Alana Cooper photo.

Hometown: Knoxville, TN
School: University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Major/Degree and Year: Mathematics-Honors Concentration, Secondary Mathematics Education Minor, Junior
SRE Mentors: Jeff Larsen, Charles Collins, Nels Johnson
SRE Research Project: Dynamic Modeling of Human Emotion

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I think this program does an excellent job of introducing undergraduate students to research, providing them knowledge and experience in modeling, and immersing them in a challenging and well-supported learning environment. Quotation image.

– Alana Cooper, SRE participant

Why did you apply to the SRE program?
I was determined to get involved with academic research over the summer for many reasons. Most importantly, I believed that this program would be an invaluable opportunity to experience the research process for myself and to better determine if I will pursue graduate school in the future. Additionally, because of my interest in secondary education, I thought that projects on the interface of mathematics and biology could be an excellent vehicle for integrating math and science concepts into high school curriculum.

What is the purpose of your research?
The purpose of my group’s research is to better understand how human emotions change and develop over time, using data from a research experiment where around 100 participants watched a series of film clips from the movie, Life is Beautiful. Five film clips were chosen to elicit certain emotions from the participants, so as they watched the scenes, they were asked to score themselves in a coordinate plane with positive emotion and negative emotion on the x and y axes, respectively. This data was then collected and compiled into a very large Excel file. Our goal is to analyze and model this data in order to understand how individual participants, as well as the average participant, emotionally reacts to a given stimulus. Additionally, we have clips of the participants’ facial expressions as they watched the scenes, which have been analyzed and scored by other people (“coders”) and a computer program. We intend to compare the self-reported scores and the coder scores to learn more about the experience of emotion versus the expression of emotion.

What does the research ultimately accomplish?
Ultimately, a better understanding of human emotions could have a multitude of impacts on the treatment and study of emotional and behavioral disorders. Through this research, we are trying to discern patterns of order from the seemingly chaotic displays of emotions. If we can possibly connect individual differences like personality traits to probable emotional behaviors, we might be able to better diagnose causes of various psychological symptoms.

Describe a typical day on the job.
My day typically begins when I arrive at NIMBioS around 9 AM. I meet up with the rest of my group and we quickly discuss what the goals are for the day before jumping right to work. Every day is a little different: some days consist of reading papers and discussing theory; other days are focused in MATLAB generating plots of our data and making conclusions about our findings. Three times a week, we have a meeting with our mentors to discuss our progress, ask questions about our next steps, and make new goals accordingly.

Tell us something about your field of study we would be surprised to know.
I think that a lot of people automatically associate individuals studying mathematics with teaching. And while this is a wonderful avenue to take, and one I am interested in pursuing myself, there are so many directions that you can go with a mathematics degree. People with experience in mathematics often get involved in industry, academia, economics, computer science, and many other great fields. I believe a degree in mathematics is unique in that it teaches you how to think critically and logically, while providing you a figurative toolbox of problem-solving techniques. It’s not always about crunching numbers!

Do you have any unique aspects of your SRE to share?
I had the privilege of working with some of the kindest, most authentic women I have ever met through my SRE project. Our group dynamics were incredible. Although we had different personalities and ways of working, they meshed together perfectly to make us a powerful and cohesive team. We all genuinely loved mathematics and were willing to work hard, while having tons of fun, to make the most of our research experience. I’m really proud of what we accomplished.

What were your favorite parts of the SRE program?
My absolute favorite part of the SRE program was getting to know and work with the other wonderful participants. While each individual brought a new perspective, background, and set of life experiences with them, we were all connected by our common passions for mathematics and biology. I also really enjoyed learning about the psychology behind human emotions as well as several different areas of mathematics and statistics related to my project. It was awesome to have the opportunity to work with and learn from mentors who are professionals in their fields.

What new experiences did you gain that have helped you today?
Through this program, I developed various facets of my communication skills. Within our cohort of participants and mentors, we had a great mixture of math people, science people, and some who straddled the two content areas. Since we were working on the interface of mathematics and biology, with everyone having unique background knowledge and experiences, it was definitely important to be able to clearly and precisely articulate your ideas in a way that everyone could understand, whether that be within your group or amongst your peers. Additionally, by writing up and presenting our findings for a variety of audiences, I improved my academic writing and presentation skills. These are all valuable lessons that will greatly help me in the future, regardless of the career path I take.

What advice would you give someone who's interested in/curious about participating in the program?
I would encourage all prospective participants to apply, regardless of your experience with research (or lack thereof). I believe that participating in this program is a great opportunity to stretch your thinking and put your academic knowledge and skills to good use, while of course having fun with awesome people. Regardless of whether you continue with research after this program or not, it is a genuine experience that will teach you a lot about yourself and your interests. Also, I would highly suggest developing good relationships with faculty in your institution, both inside and outside your program of study. Having these relationships opens up the door to potential research opportunities and future letters of recommendation.

Would you recommend our program to others?
Most definitely. I actually started recommending this program to other people before the summer even began! I think this program does an excellent job of introducing undergraduate students to research, providing them knowledge and experience in modeling, and immersing them in a challenging and well-supported learning environment.

Related Links

Main SRE page
2016 summer program

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From 2008 until early 2021, NIMBioS was supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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