University of Vermont

University Communications

Students Present Research on Gambling, Fear, Gender Differences and Parenting and More at Annual Conference

Yainna Hernaiz-Hernandez
Doctoral student Yainna Hernáiz-Hernández explains her project, "Determining abundance and diversity of fungi in the Harvester Ants." (Photo: Sally McCay)

On April 19, more than 300 students gathered to bring their research projects from out of the libraries and labs on campus into a community space, the Davis Center's fourth floor, to present, discuss and celebrate the varied areas of scholarly inquiry that have been their focus over the past months. Read on for a snapshot of projects conducted by four UVM students, their motivations and findings, triumphs and, yes, occasional challenges.

Page Atcheson, senior environmental studies major

Hometown: Seattle, Wash.

Project name: "'Changing the Current': Resources to Address Climate Change"

Adviser: Amy Seidl, environmental program lecturer

What sparked your interest in this research topic?
I had been working with the 350.org campaign, which is based around climate change advocacy. I've also been studying climate change, community and response at UVM, and I won the Public Research and Creative Endeavors grant (which provides support to students creating a community-based research project), which was perfect because (the money that came with the award) gave us the potential to create something. That all came together to create this (a board game designed to engage community members around the topic of climate change), which is my senior thesis.

Tell me more about the game.
The game is about communicating the local impacts of climate change, the global impacts of climate change and ways that people can get involved with efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. So I designed the game, and we went to town meetings this past March with "climate ambassadors," we call them. So there were three climate ambassadors who went out into town meetings and basically engaged with people in their community using the game to talk about climate change and hopefully educate people.

The idea is to brainstorm, so these game cards give an impact, and then the idea is to engage people in the questions: what do we do knowing that the growing season is getting longer? Or that flooding is more likely? Or that the maple sugar season is getting shorter? The intent is to start that conversation. And then the personal action cards have a spectrum of ways people can get involved -- whether it's on a political, community or personal level.

What was your key discovery?
That this is a good tool to start a conversation, also that there's a need for a community member to engage with their community. An outsider coming in or experts with science on climate change is not likely to lead to community engagement. Making what you're communicating applicable to their lives and their values is critical. So a lot of that was driving climate change home for people in a way that is not overwhelming.

Why is studying this important?
Climate change is such an important issue to deal with urgently -- both in adaptation and mitigation efforts -- and we need a collective response. And I think the communication piece of that is critical -- not just communicating the science but also communicating ways for people to get involved. It's an imperative task, and that's why this has been so fulfilling.

Best moment of the project?
It felt really good to have a physical product done -- having all the conversations and research and understanding what I want to do and then sort of translating that into making something. Even just getting (the game board) back from Kinko's -- that's kind of a funny moment -- but just having something you can show people is neat. And then the day that it launched, I came home after the Charlotte town meeting and one of the climate ambassadors emailed me that she was so excited and wanted me to call her because she had such a good experience with the game and wanted to talk about it so badly. So that was cool to see someone else so excited.
 
What's next?
For the game, the most immediate next step is for the 350.org day of action that's coming up on May 5. They're talking about adapting a life-size version of the game to make it even more engaging.

And I was just talking here (at the research conference) to some people in early education about how to adapt it for children. The game is definitely targeted to a more mature audience that's at least somewhat familiar with climate change and environmental issues, but we found at town meeting that kids were drawn to it.

Brittany Smith, senior business administration major with concentrations in accounting and finance

Hometown: West Pawlet, Vt.

Project name: "Factors That Influence Taxpayer Compliance When Reporting Gambling Income"

Adviser: Barbara Arel, assistant professor of business

What was your motivation to work on this research?
My motivation behind this research was driven by an experience I had while volunteering for Voluntary Income Tax Return Association. This volunteer work involved completing tax returns for low-income individuals. While volunteering, I faced a real-life example of tax noncompliance due to failure to report gambling income. I was almost finished with a woman's income taxes when she began discussing her bingo winnings online. She continued to explain how she had won approximately $5,000 playing bingo and how she enjoyed the activity. My supervisor overheard the conversation and asked the women if she had gambling income for the year, and, looking surprised, she denied any gambling activity and joked that she would never be the type of person to do that. It was then that I realized that taxpayer noncompliance is a problem and that one of its important elements is failure to report gambling income.

What was your key discovery?
I had four hypotheses for factors that may influence taxpayer compliance in reporting gambling income. Two of these hypotheses resulted in statistically significant results. The first is that taxpayer compliance in reporting gambling income increases with an increase in the education level of the taxpayer and the second is that taxpayer compliance in reporting gambling income decreases with an increase in the complexity of the tax form. These results suggest that the IRS should take measures to increase taxpayer knowledge of the laws and make an effort to keep tax reporting a simple process. By taking these initiatives, the overall compliance in reporting taxes may increase.

Why is studying this important?
This research is important to the existing tax compliance literature. It is important for the government to collect income tax revenues in order to adequately fund various social programs. While my research focuses on tax compliance in reporting gambling income, I believe that my overall results are significant enough to apply to other, more general sections of taxpayer compliance.

Best and worst moment of the project?
The best moment of this project was when I personally went to over eight  business classes to distribute the surveys I used to gather data for my research. It was rewarding to attend the classes, give a brief description of my project and then have the students take my survey. Upon the completion of the surveys, I answered additional questions and got a feel for how knowledgeable and interested the students were in the research.

I'm not sure if there was a "worst" moment for this project, as I thoroughly enjoyed the learning process and interactions with both students and professors. The stressful piece was most likely in time management. It was difficult to collect 335 surveys worth of data, enter it into Excel and then write the actual thesis. I was able to collect my data during the fall semester, input the data over winter break and begin writing and analyzing my results spring semester. Luckily I was able to complete everything on time, but it did require time management skills.

What's next?
Now that I am graduating, I will begin working in October as an auditor for Gallagher Flynn & Company in South Burlington.

Pierre Galea, post-baccalaureate, pre-medical student

Hometown: It’s hard to say! I have family in Malta, New York, Georgia and San Francisco. My citizenship is Maltese, but I’ll become an American citizen this May.

Project name: "Identifying and Quantifying Volatile Fear Response in Humans"

Adviser: Jane Hill, assistant professor of engineering

What was your motivation to work on this research/what sparked your interest?
I started classes in my post-bac program but research is very interesting, too. I saw Dr. Jane Hill’s website and it looked like everyone was doing something significant -- understanding this fear chemistry is very interesting and fits in my goals of having some clinical work as a student.

What was your key discovery?
We’re working to identify the volatiles -- the organic compounds -- in human sweat, when someone has a fear reaction. We test this using a kind of mass spectrometry called Secondary Electrospray Ionization.

It’s still in the early stages. What we’ve done so far is made sure that this is possible -- that the testing we’d like to do is scientifically feasible. This includes being able to elicit a fear response in volunteers (using two-minute film clips) and then making sure that we can read and analyze the chemicals that are secreted during that exercise. We’ve designed the device so that we can hook up under the armpit and go directly into the instrument and within minutes can get an analysis of what compounds are present.

So far, we’ve been able to get spectra that belonged to sweat, but not sweat in a fear response -- because we’re still waiting for approval for the next stages of the experiment from the committees on human research.

Why is studying this important?
There were a couple of studies suggesting that smelling sweat coming from a person when they are afraid induces more risky behavior and increased alertness. If we know what these compounds are, if we can produce these compounds, and they, in fact, do elicit that reaction, it could be a natural means of being more alert in situations where it’s important.

This could also be useful in psychology. If we know that certain compounds are released when a person is stressed, we could possibly devise a test to measure whether a person is anxious or stressed.

Best and worst moment of the project?
So far it’s been very exciting just learning what other studies have found and designing this experiment. As for the worst? Waiting for the next steps to happen. We’ve done our preliminary test. Now we’re waiting for board approval to get started collecting actual data.

What's next?
Getting the tests done.

Anna Wright, senior psychology major

Hometown: Londonderry, Vt.

Project name: "Effects of Gender Differences on Parental Tolerance of Child Disruptive Behaviors"

Adviser: Rex Forehand, professor of psychology

What was your motivation to work on this research?
I’m interested in developmental psychology with child-parent issues as a specific focus. Professor Forehand gave us the opportunity to design our own research question using data that was already collected. It was part of his current work, but the specific topic I drew from my own interest in this area.

What was your key discovery?
When you look at parent gender and child gender together in terms of parent tolerance for oppositional-defiance behaviors, we found that fathers were significantly more tolerant of their sons than of their daughters, whereas mothers had equal tolerance across child gender. We had findings in the direction that we predicted, but, given the fairly small sample size, the fact that it was significant was exciting and a bit of a surprise.  

What are the broader implications of this research?
One is that parent tolerance is talked about a lot in the research but we don’t have a good measure and it hasn’t been officially defined. Using the Eyberg Child Behavior Inventory, we created a new measure to evaluate tolerance, which hopefully will be an easy tool for researchers to get at the issue without explicitly asking a parent. We feel that most parents would report a high tolerance for a behavior when that might not be true.

In terms of future research, we need more information on fathers who are neglected in studies of parenting behavior. We think fathers are typically less involved in parenting while mothers typically have more knowledge of child development and more reasonable expectations for their children, therefore parenting equally between genders.

Also gender role issues come into play -- it’s more acceptable for boys to display oppositional-defiant behaviors than for girls. Fathers see behaviors in their sons and may think they’re just acting out, whereas for their daughters it goes against stereotype and becomes less acceptable. If one of the explanations is that mothers are the primary caregivers then we need to study fathers who are primary caregivers and see whether that makes a difference.

Best and worst moment of the project?
Definitely the best part was finding significant findings. And coming up with questions was fun. The beginning of the process -- before the paper writing -- was the best. Revisions are tedious. We have great findings but now we have to do revision after revision to come up with a great paper to publish.

What's next?
I’m looking into psychology-related research positions at universities and hospitals to get more research experience before applying for a spot in a graduate program.