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Laurel Sarfan

Every year, ABCT’s Research Facilitation committee awards a Graduate Student Research Grant to provide financial support for a student whose research shows great innovation, creativity, and broader significance. Additionally, this funding mechanism takes into account the financial need of the applicant, prioritizing projects that could not be done without this support. For this feature, we are excited to present the recipient of the 2018 ABCT Graduate Student Research Grant: Laurel Sarfan, M.A. Laurel is a fifth-year clinical psychology Ph.D. student at Miami University, where she is mentored by Dr. Elise Clerkin. She received her B.A. from Whitman College and her M.A. from the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the cognitive and emotion regulation factors that drive psychopathology. The goals of her research are to enhance existing treatments by a) identifying key, transdiagnostic risk factors and mechanisms of psychopathology, and b) testing experimental interventions that target them.

Laurel responded to questions from ABCT’s Research Facilitation Committee about her experiences in research.

How long have you been a member of ABCT?

4 years

How did you first become involved in research? What was this first research experience like?

I first volunteered as a research assistant when I was an undergraduate student at Whitman College. My cognitive psychology professor, Dr. Matthew Prull, announced that he was looking for a research assistant to help test memory biases, and I signed on immediately. I found the research experience to be exciting from start to finish. I especially loved collecting data, where I could directly observe factors that made participants’ memories more or less biased. I also distinctly remember that Dr. Prull was a patient, respectful, and generous research mentor, meeting with me weekly to discuss the research process and to review scientific papers. This formative mentorship model meaningfully shaped my own research and mentorship style.

What does an average day or week look like for you?

One of the things that I love about being a clinical psychology graduate student is the number of different types of activities we can do in a day! This year, my days often focus on research and teaching. A typical day involves writing or prepping for my class in the morning. Then, I usually meet with undergraduate students, either training a research assistant, holding office hours, or discussing an honors student’s thesis draft. In the afternoon, I teach or spend more time writing (so luxurious!). To wrap up the work day, I often attend a lab meeting with my advisor and the other graduate students or with the undergraduate students assisting with data collection. After work, I try-sometimes successfully-to make time for a social, self-care activity, like going to the gym with my lab, potlucking with my non-graduate student friends, or making dinner with my partner.

What is an example of a set-back you’ve experienced in your work, and how did you handle it?

One set-back that influenced my approach to research was my first manuscript rejection. Logically, I knew publishing could be challenging, but I hadn’t really considered what that would mean on a practical level. When I received the rejection email, I spent a few days (okay, weeks) moping until my wonderful advisor, Dr. Elise Clerkin, gave me one of her inspirational pep talks. She emphasized the importance of perseverance, and we developed a game plan. We consulted with statistical experts in our department. I reached out to friends for response letter tips and ran several manuscript drafts past my lab mates. I was encouraged by mentors who willingly shared their own experiences of rejection. Along the way, I found myself swept up in the excitement of taking on the challenge. On the next submission attempt, the manuscript found a good home at Cognition and Emotion. From this setback, I learned the values of perseverance, leaning into the excitement of challenges, and cultivating generous, supportive relationships with colleagues and mentors-values that I hope I carry into all aspects of my work.

Has your approach to research changed over the course of your education? If so, how has it changed?

Initially, my approach to research was driven by methods and results, rather than theory. From this standpoint, my hypotheses stemmed from design choices (e.g., what happens if we induce stress using an interview task versus a speech task?). Or, I would design a study based loosely on a theoretical framework, and then throw in a bunch of measures that would likely be related to my variables of interest. I am grateful to my advisor for teaching me to ground my scientific questions firmly in theory and prior empirical findings. Now, I always start research projects by systematically combing through the relevant literature, using that literature review to refine my questions and form my hypotheses. Then, I can take the next step of developing my methods and analytic plan. Based on these sound research practices, the findings are more meaningful, regardless of whether the statistics reveal significant results.


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