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Meet Varun Kasula, a Senior Psychology major with minors in Neuroscience and Chemistry, who works in Dr. Keely Muscatell’s Carolina Social Neuroscience and Health Lab. The Social Neuroscience and Health Lab examines how social status affects our neural, affective and physiological responses to stress and social interactions, how the brain and immune system responds to racial discrimination, why individuals lower in socioeconomic status have worse health, how social factors protect cancer patients and survivors from experiencing negative physical and mental health outcomes, and how the physiological state of the body feeds back to the brain to alter our perceptions of the social world.

Tell us about your research. Currently, I’m involved with two separate ongoing studies. In one study, our goal is to determine if stimulating the vagus nerve (using tVNS) enhances one’s ability to recognize emotion as well as regulate stress. The other is an fMRI study that aims to measure the relationship between economic inequality and risk-taking behavior.

What do you like most about your work? The projects I’m involved in allow me to play a small role in shaping our collective understanding of human behavior, on a physiological and social level. Our country’s rising levels of stress and wealth inequality also make this research quite relevant. Ultimately, what makes this entire experience so rewarding is being able to be a part of something that’s greater than myself.

Has this experience changed your ideas about research? I’m constantly learning more about the nuances and challenges of conducting a methodologically sound experiment. The quality of a research study can only be as good as the technology it uses. I’ve dreamt of one day conducting ground-breaking research on the human brain, but those dreams never included devising a way of doing so while keeping participants claustrophobically immobilized in a giant magnetic scanner. They definitely didn’t include having to deal with the IRB either…

Our Undergraduate Research Series features spotlights on our Psychology and Neuroscience majors and minors who are conducting undergraduate research with our faculty! We believe strongly that undergraduate experiences are greatly enriched by inquiry and discovery through undergraduate research. Research experiences allow students to better understand literature, determine areas of interest, discover their passion for research, continue on to graduate studies, and to jump start their careers as researchers. If you are an undergraduate who is interested in pursuing research experiences, we offer PSYC and NSCI 395 as an opportunity to work side-by-side with graduate students and faculty members on cutting-edge psychological and neuroscience research. We also recommend you visit the Office for Undergraduate Research to find research opportunities, apply for research funding, and for helpful tools and advice. Research opportunities abound at UNC – find one that works for you!

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