When Virginia Tech closed campus in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, most labs shuttered their doors, put a pin in their projects, and waited for the moment it was deemed safe enough to resume their research.

But during that time, four then undergraduate students in the Center for Applied Behavior Systems (CABS) within the Virginia Tech Department of Psychology decided to create new studies that would allow them to document and analyze people’s behavior at the beginning of the pandemic.

This past summer, their research was published in the Virginia Journal of Business, Technology, and Science. The four students — Nolan Barrett, Mackenzie Davis, Myriam Oliver, and Sam Browning — were each named as first authors on their respective studies, an impressive feat for any student. Each year, scores of Hokie undergraduates participate in research, but it’s uncommon to be published at this stage, nevertheless as the lead author.

“It’s rare enough for an undergraduate to lead their own research project, but to be able to lead a research project that is so relevant to the current time is such a unique experience,” said Browning, who was a psychology major and is now a Ph.D. student in the department. “Being in such a tight-knit group of people really motivated us to get some relevant research done during a time when some other labs had to go on hiatus.”

Under the supportive guidance of alumni distinguished professor Scott Geller of psychology — who spearheads CABS — each student took on the formidable role of designing their studies, carrying out the research, analyzing the data, and submitting to the journal.

The students also coped with the added challenge of having to safely collect behavioral data from afar and coordinate with their collaborators remotely. Barrett examined different communities' health guidelines; Davis analyzed mask wearing in COVID-19 hotspots; Oliver studied the applications of risk compensation theory when it came to social distancing and mask wearing; and Browning investigated how much weekly gratitude letters could influence students' mental states.

“As someone trying to get into scientific field, it’s a big deal,” said Browning, who served as the research center’s coordinator in 2020. “We’re reading all these papers and you see the authors’ first initial, middle initial, and last name. And now there’s a published paper with ‘S. L. Browning.’ It’s just really motivating because I’m looking at it, saying to myself, ‘Well, let’s get some more. Let’s keep working at it and trying to contribute to the latest literature.’”

All four students said they never expected to be published, much less as lead authors, but they felt immensely proud when their papers were accepted.

“I’m still a little bit in disbelief, it doesn't feel real,” Davis said. “I worked so hard on these projects, so it feels like great, and I am proud of myself for it. I’m proud of all of us.”

For budding scientists, undergraduate research plays a huge part in developing the skills to think like an investigator. This experience can be a game-changer when applying for graduate school or research jobs.

“I don't think I really understood how big of a deal [being published] was until I came to The Netherlands for my master’s” said Barrett, who majored in psychology and experimental neuroscience in the School of Neuroscience, also part of the College of Science. “I had two interviews for internships, and one of the first questions they said was, ‘Oh wow, you’re published. Can you tell me about that?’ I think it really sets me apart from others, and I think it’s really going to help in the future.”

Barrett and Browning are now in graduate school, while Oliver and Davis are applying for next year. They all credit their experience in CABS with helping them meet their educational and career goals. But as any of them would tell you, the graduate students who served as co-authors and Geller — affectionately known as “Doc” — provided unwavering support throughout the whole project.

"Doc has so much experience, and he’s always very inspiring and encouraging. We just gained so much from his knowledge,” said Oliver, a senior majoring in psychology. “I don’t think I would be where I am without him.”

Geller has been with the Department of Psychology for an astonishing 52 years, and one of his missions since arriving has been to encourage undergraduate involvement in research. Every semester, CABS has between 30 and 70 undergraduates involved in its various research projects.

“People ask me, ‘Why are you still here?’ I tell them it’s the inspiration that I feel from the students’ achievements,” he said. “I would not be here if it wasn’t for the undergraduates — not only these four — but for all of the undergraduate students getting experiential learning. That’s what keeps me going.”

—    Written by Rasha Aridi