Catawba students sweep psychology awards at regional conference
SALISBURY — Research conducted by two Catawba College international student-athletes with their psychology faculty member recently beat out 300 other student submissions to win the first place research award at the Southeastern Psychology Association (SEPA) annual meeting held in Charleston, S.C., in early March.
Catawba College students Breki Bjarnason and Gudny Jonsdottir — both majoring in psychology, both soccer players from Iceland and both planning to graduate in May — collaborated with Dr. Sheila Brownlow, chair and professor of psychology, on research titled “Does priming athleticism decrease performance on cognitive tasks?” The research conducted and their oral presentation about it at the SEPA meeting netted them a first place Psi Chi, National Undergraduate Psychology Honor Society, award.
“The students, who both happened to be athletes, were wondering whether study participants, also athletes, would behave differently if they had athletics on their mind,” Dr. Brownlow explained. “They created short activities to make sure that the study participants thought about athletes and then asked them to do athletic tasks. As it turned out, thinking about athletics, either positively or negatively, did not improve athletic or body functions, but it did decrease the cognitive or academic performance of the study participants.”
“We aimed to examine whether priming athleticism would increase abilities on motor tasks and decrease abilities on cognitive tasks,” Breki added. “Using a range of different motor skills, both gross and fine (e.g. walking speed, ball toss accuracy, mazes), as well as cognitive tasks (word puzzle, recall), we found that making salient athletic status or athletic behaviors had no influence on motor skills, but decreased cognitive task ability. We theorize that stereotype threat can account for the athlete’s poor performance on cognitive tasks.”
Both Breki and Gudny said preparation for the oral presentation was the most challenging part of the competition.
“Condensing months’ worth of work into a short presentation, and then [to] practice presenting it in front of a crowd, was definitely the most difficult part of the process. The ability to present your ideas clearly and quickly to other people is something I suspect we will be able to apply in various situations in the future, regardless of what path we end up choosing,” Breki said.
“Speaking in front of other people and in a different language than my mother language has always been quite the challenge for me,” he said. “However, with months of work, and meeting Dr. Brownlow two times a week to prepare for it definitely helped me and it made me realize that I am capable of presenting my work clearly in front of other people. Moreover, I learned how to present myself in a professional manner, open my eyes to different research/paths and the importance of it.”
Brownlow lauded their dedication to practicing their presentations, recalling that they rehearsed their 12-minute talk multiple times a week during the month of February, always at 8 a.m. when they had openings in their collective schedules.
“They both worked really hard. They spent their snow days getting prepared,” Brownlow said. “I look at this as an investigative study because the data are not that strong, but it leads to more research questions.”
Breki, who plans to attend Maastricht University to study industrial and organizational psychology after graduating in May, explained the importance of their research.
“I think doing research projects like this is an important experience for the future, even if you have no intention on pursuing anything further in research or academics,” he said.
“It teaches you to create a project from scratch, work continuously on it over a long time, and finally see it all the way through. Reviewing research on a certain topic, looking at the big picture, interacting professionally with human participants, and completing the correct paperwork are just a few of the skills obtained from this experience that could benefit you professionally in the future. And if you ever feel like you’re stuck, Dr. Brownlow can use all of her knowledge and experience to help you back on the right track.”
“One think I learned during the whole process is how much we have actually learned over the past few years, even though it isn’t always apparent to yourself,” he continued. “Whether it was talking to researchers from other schools, listening to presentations, or just conversing with fellow Catawba students, I found myself regularly referring to concepts or ideas we had covered in class. I know many of my fellow classmates who attended the conference feel the same, something most of us wouldn’t have believed when we were staying up late studying for our big psychology test.”
Gudny, who will take a gap year before pursuing a graduate degree in child counseling or clinical psychology, echoed Breki’s sentiments.
“I learned that if I apply myself I am able to do so much more than what I expect from myself,” he said. “I also realized that after four years of hard work, working closely with some of the best professors I have had and many late nights, they have paid off. As Breki said, we both realized that we know more than we thought.”
“Even though you do not intend to work in research,” Gudny explained, “it will always be a big part of the field of psychology. Seeing how the field of psychology is ever changing, knowing how to collect data, analyze it and present/put it in words for people to understand are just some things we have gained from experiences like this one which I believe will benefit us in the future.”
Catawba research also grabs third place award at SEPA
It is important to note that while Breki and Gudny co-authored the aforementioned first place award-winning research with Brownlow; Gudny also collaborated with Brownlow on a separate research project titled “Name-letter matching to personal preferences in two cultures.” Gundy’s research project earned the third place Psi Chi award out of the 300 presentations submitted at the SEPA conference.
“This is out of submissions from small and large public and private institutions in the Southeast!” a proud Brownlow said. “Their research projects were very interesting, well-written and well-presented.”
Gudny’s research examined the tendency to match letters of first and last names to life-related items, some of which were self-selected and others determined for participants (e.g. favorite band versus city of origin) as a function of culture, U.S. and Icelandic. Her results showed the predicted name-letter matching tendencies among U.S. participants, but less matching among Icelandic people.
Looking back while facing forward
Although Breki and Gudny, are poised to graduate, their award-winning presentations at the recent SEPA annual meeting allowed them an opportunity to reflect back on their collegiate experience.
“Overall I have really liked my four years here at Catawba. It could sometimes be a bit hectic to find time for all academic and athletic responsibilities, but in the end, you got a well-rounded experience and many great personal relationships out of it,” Breki shared. “I really liked the small class sizes as they allowed you to connect and work closely with both your teachers and cohort. So even though I am ready to start the next chapter in my life, I will always look back at my Catawba days with fond memories in mind.”
“Being a psychology major as well as a soccer player was very challenging at times but it was also very enjoyable,” Gudny remembered. “We got a very good experience as a student athlete and as I look to attend master’s and doctor’s programs, I feel as if the psychology department has done an amazing job preparing me not only for the school aspects but also for future career paths. Most importantly, the professional relationships I have created with professors such as Dr. Brownlow definitely stand out the most. Being able to work so closely with someone who has achieved much and someone who inspires you to be your best self has been an amazing experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
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