My (Virtual) Summer at the DSCN Lab

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2021 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Austin Smith, COL ’22

This summer, I had the opportunity to volunteer virtually at the Developmental Social Cognitive Neuroscience (DSCN) Lab, co-directed by Dr. Stephanie Carlson and Dr. Philip Zelazo. This lab is located in the renowned Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. During this experience, I worked on a meta-analytic project investigating the relationship between executive function skills and scientific achievement. Executive function skills are the higher-order neurocognitive processes required to engage in goal-directed behaviors. They encompass working memory (holding information in mind), set shifting (switching between tasks), and inhibitory control (ignoring distractions).

Essentially, every time we try to focus on a task, we are exhibiting our executive function skills. Previous research, notably through the DSCN lab, has implicated executive function to be heavily associated with school readiness and academic achievement, socioemotional functioning, and adolescent well-being. Additionally, unlike a lot of other metrics (e.g. IQ), executive function skills are malleable and can be improved with practice. It is for these reasons that I am so fascinated by this topic: improving executive function skills has the capacity to improve educational outcomes and child development.

Throughout the summer I was able to contribute meaningful work to the lab as they sought to quantify the relationship between executive function and science achievement through a meta-analysis of all present research on the topic. I combed through multiple databases and read countless journal articles in order to identify the most effective search strategy. In the end, I helped to produce a list of keywords related to executive function and science achievement that would be used to conduct the meta-analysis. The process was laborious but rewarding which gave me a unique insight into my desired career in academia; if I enjoyed the tedious work, then I must be on the right career track.

As I enter my senior year at Penn, my aspirations of obtaining a Ph.D. in psychology have been confirmed. My desire is to leverage psychological research findings to support child development and reduce inequities in education. I believe that every child deserves the right to succeed and research findings – such as executive function skills – prove that there are malleable qualities that can be improved with interventions and, ultimately, lead to better life outcomes. As such, I aspire to produce meaningful research that can be used to better people’s lives and opportunities such as my summer at the DSCN lab have provided me with the necessary tools and knowledge to accomplish this.

For their funding award, I am extremely grateful to Penn Career Services and all of the donors whose support allowed me to surmount financial barriers this summer. While the road to a Ph.D. is long and arduous, I am pleased to have a community of alumni behind me, supporting me at every step.

By Career Services
Career Services