A newly reopened lab tucked away in the southwest corner of Memorial Stadium studies the mysteries of the human mind and gives students a direct opportunity to expand their own in the process.
This is just one of many research studies underway at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, also known as CB3, but the laboratory of thinking, attention and Perception (RAP) is distinguished by the comprehensive experience it can provide psychology students with aspirations for graduate school and beyond.
“I don’t want to treat [research assistants] like a warm body that can help collect data,” said Evan Lintz, a graduate student in psychology at UNL and one of the lab’s top research assistants. “Being in a lab is very important to get into a graduate school because it’s so competitive…but then [we also want to make sure] they actually have tangible skills.
The lab, which started in 2015, uses brain scanning technology known as electroencephalography (EEG). Participants – who are drawn from the public and paid $30 for about 2 hours of their time – are fitted with a layer of electrodes on their skulls to take measurements of the electrical activity produced by the brain.
Using a range of varied behavioral tests and the readings they produce, researchers in the lab hope to explain various neurological phenomena related to how the brain processes information.
While the exact details of the study are being kept under wraps due to the nature of the research requiring subjects to enter without prior knowledge, the methods draw on a wide range of skills, from programming to interpersonal communication, according to Lintz.
Lintz — an unconventional graduate student who found his calling in psychology research after eight years in the Marine Corps — had little chance of doing research during his undergrad years at a small school. He said he strives to give junior lab assistants the opportunity to have a noticeable impact on research through a variety of avenues.
“I wanted to make sure that if [students want to do so]that I provide those opportunities…to make some sort of intellectual contribution to the next experiment via coding or writing, things like that,” he said.
Matthew Lowry is one such assistant. A fourth-year psychology major with a fifth year still on the horizon, Lowry joined the lab when it reopened in February 2022 after a two-year partial closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Prior to working in the RAP lab, Lowry said he had virtually no experience with computers.
“And [Lintz] walks in and says, “Hey, I’d like to teach you how to program so you can code my next experiment,” Lowry said. “He teaches the way he was taught, which is a bit off the bottom, and it’s incredibly daunting…but you start to figure things out along the way.”
Although it can be daunting at first, Lintz said the struggle is key to learning how to program, which he hopes to instill in Lowry.
“It’s that trial and error, I think, with coding that’s really what you learn,” Lintz said.
Additionally, the study is taking place under tight deadlines, with Lintz hoping to complete the work by next year in time for the completion of his doctoral dissertation, which brings an added sense of urgency.
“You have to know how to think fast…to solve problems on the fly,” Lintz said. “But also the time management of everything can be very difficult because our schedule is tight for this experience.”
Lowry said the lab also challenged him to grow in other ways.
“One thing I’m learning slowly is how to explain what [this lab] done to people,” Lowry said. “Having to explain my thought process through this and then [describe it] is fun, but also very useful.
Lintz said learning to optimize their communication skills offers a complex, yet rewarding challenge for assistants like Lowry that will pay dividends later in their careers.
“It’s kind of like any professional job…you have to learn how to interact with attendees in a professional way, but also not be stuffy,” he said.
A new intern this semester, senior psychology major Justin Frandsen entered the lab with a desire to expand his own skills, but from a totally different perspective than Lowry. As a freshman in the spring of 2020, Frandsen was one of the first participants in the study.
As a senior, Frandsen now finds himself on the other side of the glass, with the possibility of participating in a study far more complex than the independent research he conducted as part of the Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience. (UCARE), a student-sponsored university research program in which he has participated since his first year.
He said he hopes to take the opportunity to expand his knowledge, especially with research topics much more difficult than he could tackle on his own.
“There are also major advantages to working for someone else [with more experience]”, Frandsen said. “Here you kinda get along with [Lintz] and it’s these really abstract concepts that are really hard to follow, but the more you work with it, the easier it gets to follow.
Beyond the intellectual development Lowry said he gained from the lab, what excites him most is the sense of purpose that underlies all work at the RAP lab.
“It’s always so much fun, honestly,” he said. “There’s just something about it that’s so exciting…just like my mind thinking about the grand scheme of ‘wow, this is for science.'”