Research Teams – PSYC 491 and 492

During the Research Team experience, a small group of students (typically, 4-5) will study a particular topic in psychology in depth.  Over the course of the academic year, the team works closely with their instructor to develop a hypothesis, design a study to test that hypothesis, submit an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application for approval to conduct the study, analyze the data collected following execution of the study, and report the study.  In addition, the team reports their study orally at both local (i.e., the departmental Psi Chi Symposium and the university-wide Research and Creativity Day) and regional (i.e., the Virginia Psychological Association conference) venues.  Typically, students produce an APA-style paper based on the project suitable for submission to a professional journal also.  Last, the group may decide to produce a poster for presentation at a national conference, and may decide to prepare and submit a paper to a professional journal.

Research teams are populated during the spring semester prior to the start of the PSYC 491 course during the subsequent fall semester, and students commit to taking both PSYC 491 that fall and PSYC 492 the following spring.  Professors who will supervise a research team present their topics and ideas at a “Research Showcase,” and if you find a professor whose research interests match your own, you may ask to be a part of that professor’s research team.

Students who complete the Research Team experience enroll in PSYC 491 – Individual Study for 3 credits in the fall semester, and PSYC 492 – Individual Study for 3 credits in the spring semester.  Prerequisites for PSYC 491 include PSYC 261 – Introductory Statistics for Psychology, PSYC 362 – Research Methods for Psychology, and permission of instructor.

Scroll to read more about our current and future research team topics!

This Year’s Research Team Instructors and Topics:


A picture of Dr. Marcus Leppanen

Dr. Marcus Leppanen

Students interested in being on my research team should have a broad interest in cognitive psychology. In general, my research tends to focus on individual differences in the accuracy of human memory. This year I plan on conducting a memory study using eye tracking methodology. Additional variables of interest and other aspects of the methodology will be in line with student interests. Additionally, students on my research team will have the opportunity to work on a project with me during the inaugural Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Summer Institute (AHSSSI) during the first summer session. AHSSSI runs from May 16th until June 14th, 2022. Acceptance into the AHSSSI program includes a $1,500 stipend, housing on campus, and access to a meal plan. This is an in-person program and you are expected to be in Fredericksburg to work on the project five days a week. The AHSSSI program culminates in a small symposium where students will get presentation experience talking about our research progress. Our goal for the summer program will be to familiarize ourselves with the eye tracking system while collecting data on the relationship between mindful attention and memory. The ideal situation is for the summer project to lead into the year-long project we will conduct in 491/492, but that plan may change. Participation in the summer program is NOT a requirement for membership on my research team.


Dr. Virginia Mackintosh

I’m interested in doing a content analysis of children’s literature as it relates to personality development. This will involve becoming familiar with the empirical research regarding personality development, cultural differences in how different personality components are valued, and the influence of media. In addition, the team will learn how to use the qualitative approach of content analysis. Once we have that strong background, we will immerse ourselves in children’s literature, from books for toddlers to young adult fiction. What messages are children getting as to the types of personality traits valued?


Dr. Jennifer Mailloux

Over the past few years, I have been studying how certain variables are related to sexual satisfaction using self-report data. One of the variables I have studied is cognitive distraction during sexual activity. Individuals can be distracted during sex by focusing on whether one’s body will look pleasurable to one’s partner and/or whether one will behave in a way resulting in one’s partner’s sexual pleasure. Distracted individuals may not focus on themselves, including the pleasurable sensations and feelings that may occur during sex, which may result in low sexual satisfaction. Other variables that I have investigated that appear to be related to sexual satisfaction include body consciousness, body shame, and body esteem. This is not an exhaustive list of variables that can influence sexual satisfaction! Also, so far, I have limited my research to heterosexual women; however, most recently, I recruited younger and older women, and found interesting differences between some of the variables mentioned above in these groups. For example, I found body esteem to influenced sexual satisfaction in younger, but not older, women. In the future, there are a lot of directions to go with this research, including examining other types of variables (behavioral or physiological) that might influence sexual satisfaction as well as how all of these variables influence sexual satisfaction in individuals other than heterosexual women.


A picture of Dr. Christine McBride

Dr. Christine McBride

In the past, my research teams have explored several explanations for why we eat what we eat. We have studied attentional focus on food using the eye-tracker, the roles of guilt and mindfulness in stress-induced eating, the types of stressors (e.g. cognitive or social) that elicit eating behavior, how descriptive norms impact eating, and the impact of menu design. We have studied eating in both adults and children. One of my previous research teams studied how and why people justify decisions to eat “junk food”. For example, have you ever said to yourself, “If I study for 10 more minutes, I can go have some ice cream!” We found that those who put effort into a task tend to indulge on more potato chips and chocolate than those who do not put in effort and following up on this line of research would be fun. Generally, I anticipate using both survey research and creative laboratory-based experimental designs to answer research questions about eating behaviors.

While my research team will work in the general area of eating behavior, the exact nature of next year’s topic will depend on the specific interests of the students. I’m looking for students who are extremely reliable, inquisitive, and love the research process!


A picture of Dr. Erin Palmwood

Dr. Erin Palmwood

My research examines different aspects of romantic relationship functioning in order to determine what factors contribute to relationship success and distress. In the past, I have worked with students to conduct studies exploring:

· The impact of romantic relationship threat on emotion regulation ability

· Inhibitory control problems as a predictor of engagement in infidelity

· The link between positive relationship characteristics and attention allocated to romantic partners

· The impact of unsupportive partner behaviors on reactivity to making mistakes

I typically use electroencephalography (EEG) to examine these phenomena (e.g., inhibitory control, emotion regulation, attention allocation, reactivity to mistakes) at the neural level, and I hope to do this with my research team next year. However, the specific study that my team conducts, including the methodology of that study, will be determined by student interests. Familiarity with brain research is not necessary to join my team! I particularly enjoy working with students who are highly organized, conscientious, and excited about research.


Dr. Holly Schiffrin

In the past, my research teams have focused on two primary topics including positive psychology and parenting issues. The goal of positive psychology is to identify and enhance the human strengths and virtues that make life worth living and allow individuals and communities to thrive. Generally, I want to follow up on research I have conducted on the impact of helicopter parenting practices on the well-being of both parents and their emerging adult aged children. Potential questions could include examining (1) the impact of helicopter parenting on children’s mindsets; (2) the impact of helicopter mothering versus fathering; (3) the impact of helicopter parenting on male versus female children; or (4) the impact of “helicopter professoring” (expanding the concept of helicopter parenting to a new group). The project pursued will depend upon the research interests of members of the team. Whatever the final topic, I am interested in working on applied issues related to well-being that have practical applications. My research team will be involved in designing the study as well as developing data collection instruments, collecting data, analyzing data, as well as writing reports and making presentations to summarize the findings. Depending on the outcome of the study, we may also submit the results of our investigations for presentation at a national conference or publication in an appropriate journal. If you have questions or are interested in learning more about these projects, stop by my office (Mercer 329) or send me an e-mail (


A picture of Dr. W. David Stahlman

Dr. W. David Stahlman

As a part of this research team, you will conduct original, non-invasive experimental work investigating behavior in non-human animals. This work will include the study of laboratory rats at minimum, and may feature other model (invertebrate) organisms (e.g., hermit crabs, cockroaches, earthworms, pill bugs, brine shrimp, etc.). There is a great deal of flexibility in the phenomena the team could potentially examine. In the past, my undergraduate researchers have collaborated on experiments investigating attention and distraction; personality; non-associative learning; drug impacts on learning; “creativity” and behavioral variability; and the role of motivation in controlling spatial search behavior. Students will collaborate on experimental design and apparatus construction, and will be primarily responsible for data collection, analysis, and the write-up of experimental results. Ideally, the work would be strong enough to submit for publication in a scientific peer-reviewed journal.

Next Year’s Research Team Instructors and Topics:

Dr. David Kolar

Human actions are causing harmful changes to the environment and researchers have called for social scientists to more closely examine how human behavior impacts the environment as well as what people can do to help conserve the environment.  Next year my research team will focus on how we can take what we know about psychology and apply it to issues related to the environment.  In previous years my research teams have studied a variety of things related to the environment including food waste, water use, attitudes about the environment, and cognitive processes that influence environmental behavior. I am open to doing research in any area related to environmental issues and psychology next year and will leave the exact nature of the research up to the students working with me.  Please note that you don’t have to be an expert on environmental issues to be on my team, but you should be interested in them. Some possible questions/areas include:  1) Overconsumption:  People in the U.S. buy more products and consume more resources than most other countries.  Why?  What can we do to change this? 2) Why are some people more concerned about the environment than others?  3) How can we change behaviors related to the environment?  4) How do attitudes about the environment develop and are there age differences in environmental behavior?  5) How do others influence our attitudes about the environment?  6) An applied study with a local non-profit environmental organization.

A picture of Dr. Marcus Leppanen

Dr. Marcus Leppanen

Students interested in being on my research team should have a broad interest in cognitive psychology. In general, my research interests include memory, attention, emotion, and how individual differences are related to those processes (e.g., handedness, mindfulness, self-efficacy). This year I plan on conducting an experiment using eye tracking methodology. Students on my research team may have the opportunity to work on a project with me in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Summer Institute (AHSSSI) which would occur during the first summer session (May to June). I will update students with details on whether this opportunity is actually being funded and what it would look during the in-person meeting (email me with questions if you cannot attend). Participation in the summer program, should it occur, is NOT a requirement for membership on my research team. I am currently interested in a project that examines test-taking anxiety and how attention is allocated during online quizzes/tests but welcome input on student interests. My preference is to determine a topic through group discussions with my team. My research teams conduct in-person laboratory experiments to collect behavioral data and often also include self-report measures.

Dr. Miriam Liss

My research team next year will be doing a community based project implementing a mindfulness intervention to children at a local school. My hope is for them to use that as a springboard for developing an additional research project on the topic of mindfulness. The community based project will be done in collaboration with Well Spring Child and Family Services a local clinic headed by Dr. Beth Jerome a UMW graduate. We have been working with Spotsylvania county schools so that members of my team can work with a school in Spotsylvania county and provide Mindfulness training to children at that school. The schools we are looking at are Spotswood Elementary and Berkley Elementary although the details are still being worked out. There is a curriculum developed called Mindful Schools which is very straightforward and fun to implement. However, there is also a possibility that Dr. Jerome at Well Spring will develop a curriculum that she will train you in. My plan is to have students get trained to do a mindfulness intervention (by Dr. Jerome) and to collect data from teachers on how it affects their wellbeing, their mindfulness, and their feelings about teaching. This will give students on my team the ability to learn fantastic clinical skills in mindfulness and gain practice working with children. However, we will also have time to read and think about the literature on mindfulness and develop a project on mindfulness of our choosing. For this project, I will let the team decide the direction but my thoughts are to apply for money to use a paid research website (such as Prolific) to look at both people who meditate and do not meditate. I am particularly interested in how mindfulness practices can help people deal with stress that comes from a variety of sources (e.g., trauma, discrimination, etc). Please note, I have put a lot of leg work into developing these community connections and I am confident that we will be able to make the community aspect work. However, when working with the community there is always uncertainty so my team would need to have a flexible and positive attitude!

A picture of Dr. Erin Palmwood

Dr. Erin Palmwood

My research uses electroencephalography (EEG) to explore different aspects of romantic relationship functioning.  Next year, I’m planning to conduct a study examining neural indicators of distress following exposure to stimuli related to a former romantic partner.  In other words, I’d like to show people photos of their exes and see how their brains respond!  Although this basic framework of the study has already been established, my team will ultimately decide which other variables to examine (e.g., psychopathology, relationship experiences, personal characteristics) as potential moderators of breakup-related distress.  Familiarity with brain research is not necessary to join my team!  I particularly enjoy working with students who are highly organized, conscientious, and excited about research.

Dr. Hilary Stebbins

My research interests revolve around two topics. First, I am interested in the neurotransmitter dopamine and how individual dopamine functioning relates to our behavior. One correlate of dopamine function is the spontaneous eyeblink, which we can measure with electrooculography (EOG). Dopamine has been linked to a number of interesting traits such as reward-based learning, impulsivity, creativity, addiction potential, and even egalitarian behavior. Second, I am interested in factors related to sleep such as how sleep deprivation and circadian preference (whether you are a morning or evening person) impact cognitive performance and behavior. Ideally, I would like my 491/492 team to find a way to link dopamine and sleep deprivation. For example, one of my past teams found that as people report higher levels of sleepiness, they shower higher dopamine function and also have more difficulty controlling impulsive actions. However, we will work as a team to design one or more studies during the year and I am open to the direction of the research as long as it involves one of my variables of interest. You do not need to have a strong background in biology to work on this project, but you do have to be motivated to learn about these variables and be committed to doing experimental work in the lab.  If you have questions or are interested in learning more about these variables, stop by my office (Mercer 328) or send me an e-mail (