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Meet Jennifer Montoya, a Senior majoring in Psychology, with a minor in Neuroscience. She is currently working in Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz’s Anxiety and Stress Lab. The Anxiety and Stress Lab conducts research to advance the understanding, prevention, and treatment of clinical anxiety. Jennifer has also worked in Dr. Charlotte Boettiger’s CAB LAB on studies surrounding addiction, in the Stuber Lab under Dr. Garrett Stuber on research of stress and inflammation, and in Dr. Juan Song’s Song Lab to investigate adult neurogenesis. Her next project will allow Jennifer to branch out into a new field of study that she didn’t even know existed until last year: User Experience (UX). She’ll be conducting an independent research study in Spring 2020 under the guidance of Dr. Vicki Chanon and is looking forward to delving deeper into human-computer interactions.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from your experiences? The most valuable thing I have learned from my research background is that you don’t have to decide what you want to do right away. It’s okay to be uncertain and explore, or to one day realize that you don’t love a research topic as much as you thought you would. Moving from lab to lab was never really my intention. Sometimes I moved because I didn’t feel like I was being taught anything new, sometimes it was because I was presented an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up, and one time it was because the whole lab literally up and moved to Seattle. Things happen! You have to do what’s best for you, and pursue the paths that you’re most interested in. I have never felt like working at any of my previous labs was a waste of time. From each of them I learned what I needed most from my mentors, how I should be treated, and what type of research I did or didn’t enjoy. For instance, if I had never discovered hands-on that neuroscience really wasn’t for me, I would still be dead set on getting a job that I would probably end up disliking. My experiences have been varied, and therefore wonderful. Now I know that I want to conduct human research (not animal-model), but still be a few steps away from clinical research (which pertains to topics that can get a little too intense for me). Thanks to the generosity of all my past and present mentors, I was able to find that sweet spot in UX.

What do you like most? Before last year, I would never have guessed that the technology sector would be a place that was welcoming to psychology majors. Sure, I realized that research existed in tech, but I thought that I would only be desirable if I was also a master coder or engineer. I wish I had known earlier that there is a whole field devoted to how humans relate to the machines we create and use every day. When I entered UNC, I was excited about pursuing psychology, but I felt like I only had a few predetermined career paths to choose from. I believed I could be a therapist, or a professor with a lab, or all of the above. If I wanted to get a little crazy, I could pursue neuroscience, and if I didn’t want to do any of those things I could probably work my way into advertising or PR. There seemed to be a thousand sub-disciplines of psychology that either sounded unappealing or had a similar trajectory into academia. None of it felt truly authentic to me, even though I tried really hard to believe some of those paths did. One thing remained the same, though: I thoroughly enjoyed research. More than that, I loved when research provided direct results and left me with the sense that I had fully completed that project. Often times in psychology and neuroscience, you are only left with more questions, but in UX, your research allows for the creation of a real, usable product. Further, depending on where you work you may be given the opportunity to investigate a variety of different subjects. Maybe at one point you’re assigned to an app for the World Wildlife Fund, or maybe your research will improve virtual reality, thereby making the product more effective during exposure therapy. Through UX, you are given a chance to change lives by proxy of that product. To me, UX research is very fulfilling.

Do you think people have any misconceptions about undergraduate research or the type of research you do in particular? I, for one, certainly had some major misconceptions about undergraduate research. As a freshman, I was really worried that I wouldn’t be good enough to be accepted into any labs. However, I quickly learned that the faculty in the psychology department love when students are as enthusiastic about a topic as they are. It’s really important to not be discouraged if you can’t find a spot right away. You are smart enough conduct research, but you also have to be willing to ask for help. Also, know that you’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does, and it’s totally okay! Admit to them, learn from them, and move forward. No one should be expecting you to be perfect 24/7.

In terms of my current research in UX, I guess some people might perceive human-computer interactions as boring? To be honest, I also thought it sounded pretty uninteresting until I learned more about it. I would definitely encourage everyone to take another look at this career and to really understand what it is before writing it off. If it’s not for you, that’s great! Always pursue what’s interesting to you and never give up on finding your niche. Just don’t be like me and prematurely dismiss a potential career path because Wikipedia made it sound super dry and confusing. If a subject even remotely peaks your interest, dig deep and have someone who is passionate about that topic explain their career to you.

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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