Presbyterian College Student Studies Hamsters to Learn About Human Mental Illnesses

Presbyterian College Student Studies Hamsters to Learn About Human Mental Illnesses

Destiny_WillisPresbyterian College rising junior psychology major Destiny Willis spent the Spring Semester conducting research using male Syrian hamsters, in hopes of learning more about human psychological disorders.

Willis was studying avoidance behavior of these hamsters. She and fellow psychology majors used an apparatus (the conflict alleyway) to study the animal’s behavior after it has been defeated by another male (dominant) hamster. The apparatus was designed and built by PC Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Alicia Askew in collaboration with her husband, Dr. Fernando González.

The evidence suggests that the repeated defeats and defeat duration interact to produce avoidance of the dominant hamster. This avoidance could be akin to behaviors observed in individuals suffering from mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Willis and fellow PC student Hannah Fulenwider presented the findings in April at the 2015 Big South Undergraduate Research Symposium (BigSURS) and won an award for Best Presentation in Psychology. Fellow students Britnee Goldberg and Jonathan (JB) Mitchell also won an award at the symposium for their presentation on research conducted with PC Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Brooke Spatta.

Dr. Askew said this type of research is a logical extension of classroom learning. “Research experiences provide students with the opportunity to contribute to a body of knowledge, to refine critical and analytical skills, and to prepare for graduate study or professional life.”

In fact, Willis’ time in the lab has allowed her to discover that psychology is more than just an interest for her. It is a life’s calling – a desire to understand the inner workings of the human mind, and a passion to use that knowledge to help others.

“I have always been fascinated with how complex our minds are, as well as the behavioral aspects associated with neurological processes,” said Willis. “I believe that psychology is the study of not only the mind and behavior, but also of existence, which can be applied to every single aspect of one’s life. The potential for social conflict research to improve our understanding of a number of psychiatric disorders has fueled my interest of psychopathology.”

Willis continued, “As I have enjoyed working in a laboratory setting, I have decided to pursue graduate studies in clinical neuropsychology with a focus on anxiety disorders. I believe I will be able to relate to my patients, seeing I have an anxiety disorder.”

Willis would also like to continue to mentor other researchers, which she has also been doing this summer in addition to her own lab research. She knows first-hand how sharing her love of psychology can impact others with an interest in the field.

“If it were not for the support and inspiration of my professors I would not have been exposed to research, which has now become the entire center of my life and personal pursuit,” said Willis. “Without their guidance and faith in me, even when I did not know that I had the potential to be this successful, I would not be as involved in research as I currently am. Their extra push and dedication to each student has given me the motivation and the confidence to take on more elaborate and interesting research studies that will forever impact my career and love of psychology.”

“Many thanks to Dr. Askew and Dr. Jay Michaels (assistant professor of psychology), as well as the rest of the Psychology Department for seeing something within me that I found through their encouragement.”

Willis is a daughter of Terry and Denise Chandler of Gray Court, and a graduate of Laurens District 55 High School.

To learn more about the Psychology Department visit http://www.presby.edu/psychology/.