Wednesday, November 12, 2014

URSP Student Amanda Hanelli Uses tDCS to Affect Beliefs about Intentionality in Human-robot Interactions

Working as a research assistant in the human factors lab of George Mason University since September 2013, I have studied visual attention and cognition together with my mentor Eric Blumberg. I have been fascinated by the technology available and the endless projects on human cognition that this lab has to offer. I have enjoyed measuring how transcranial direct current stimulation, tDCS, influences visual attention. As our first study was near completion, Eric invited me to work together with him on a new project involving the study of gaze-cueing in human-robot interactions. I really liked the project and I decided to apply for the Oscar Scholarship. I was very excited to know that my project was selected to be funded.

This project is related to my long-term goals because I plan to pursue a PhD in either human factors or clinical psychology, and being given the opportunity to further explore my research question will prepare me for the requirements, difficulty and rigor of graduate school. Despite the knowledge that I will gain in the field by critically reading research articles and operating several devices, this experience will also improve my technical writing skills. Being a co-author in a published study will be a great asset to my resume and will allow me to build a scientific foundation that will bring me closer to achieving my future career goals in the field of psychology.

On a weekly basis I write and revise sections of the research paper and I run participants in the lab. This week I collected data from 4 participants. The study involves a gaze-cueing task in which participants maintain their gaze fixated on a cross in the middle of the screen in front of a robot or human face. Target letters “F” and “T” appear either on the right or the left sides of the screen. The robot or human eyes are either directed at the target or opposite to the target letter. The participant’s duty is to press a corresponding key on the keyboard when viewing each target. While they are performing the task, I also stimulate their scalp using the tDCS machine, which is based on the low current of a 9 volt battery. After identifying the right spots on the participant’s head, I place the electrodes and connect them to the tDCS machine. Students are either placed on an active group (where they are stimulated for 30 minutes), or a sham group (no stimulation). I also administer several questionnaires and surveys to the participants, as well as the consent form.

This week I learned that in order to be successful in my journey it is crucial to maintain an open relationship with my mentor and consult him about any insecurity or concern related to the project. After disclosing my fears to my mentor Eric, I learned that it is normal to feel lost and overwhelmed during the research process, as it is an unknown path, where questions and dilemmas are endless. Nevertheless, maintaining a healthy relationship with my mentor will provide me with the support and knowledge I need in order to overcome every obstacle.