As a freshman at the University of St. Thomas, junior Kelsey Benton was no longer certain what she wanted to do. She had started college thinking she would go to medical school and concentrate on psychology but found herself giving up on her science classes.
Benton, an only child and a first-generation college student, says she wishes she had someone who understood what she was going through to tell her to “keep going and not give up.”
As a part of the Excel! Research Scholars Program, she’s discovered that she wants to be that source of information for future students.
“I went through unique, stressful experiences because I’m a first-generation student,” Benton said. “I’m a talker, I like to teach, to explain. I want to give advice.”
College always had been set for Benton, part of her parents’ plan.
“We wanted a better life for her with more opportunity to do something she enjoys and to make a difference,” said Kathy Benton, Kelsey’s mom. “She has tremendous potential and should not waste it.”
Graduate school was a different story. Her parents had helped her research colleges for undergraduate before they landed on St. Thomas. It was the last school Benton visited, and she “liked the feel of campus. It felt like home, which was something I hadn’t felt before.”
But graduate school was more difficult to research, and there was only so much Benton and her parents could do online.
The Excel! Research Scholars Program, which is housed in the Grants and Research Office, prepares undergraduates who are first-generation college students, military veterans or are of an underrepresented race for graduate school. Students participate throughout their junior and senior years, doing research, learning how to write well, practicing general professionalism skills, studying the processes involved with finding and being admitted to graduate school, and examining the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement (such as learning how to make change and participating in a study tour – Journey for Justice – throughout the South.)
Excel! is closely linked with the McNair Scholars Program, which UST was a part of from 2007 to 2012. When federal funding was cut for 40 percent of the nation’s 194 programs, St. Thomas committed to maintaining the program, which then evolved into Excel! The program accepts students from St. Thomas, Concordia University, St. Catherine University, Macalester College and Hamline University.
Benton, who is a neuroscience major with a focus on psychology, attended an informational meeting about Excel! almost on a whim, figuring that, at the least, she’d get a pizza lunch.
“I was mesmerized by Miss Cynthia,” Benton said, speaking of Cynthia J. Fraction, director of the Excel! program.
“The program levels the playing field for those of diverse background, whether first-generation or race,” Fraction said. “It helps them move to the next level. My role is to teach students how to get to the next level based on merit. It helps those individuals gain the same information that some students already get through their parents, whether they’re doctors or have a bachelor’s degree.”
Benton applied to Excel!, hoping to make use of the program’s resources.
“I was almost in tears,” Benton said, when she found out she had been accepted. “I knew the opportunities with this program, and I knew it was the perfect way to get the aspects of what I wanted.”
A summer of research
Benton and her cohort, Anisa Abdulkadir, James Mite, Quinmill Lei, Raymond Kwain Kindva, Tiana Daniels and Tyler Skluzacek, spent eight weeks of the summer at St. Thomas working on their research projects and receiving training.
Benton initially was stressed about choosing a topic for her project. She had an interest in bipolar disorder, but working with individuals with bipolar disorder is difficult because they’re such a high-risk population. In the spring, she also was taking a class on stress responses. It was her interest in that class paired with an interest in bipolar disorder that prompted her to wonder: Do people with depression have different stress responses than those who don’t have depression?
Benton began talking with members of the Psychology Department about a possible mentor before finally meeting with Dr. Sarah Hankerson.
“Kelsey was very enthusiastic, was taking initiative and was already starting work on her project,” Hankerson said. “When a student shows that kind of spark, it really catches your eye.”
Benton and Hankerson began focusing the project. Benton did a lot of reading, but most of the research she found was on stress as an indicator for developing depression. Even Hankerson said she had “never considered” a topic like this before.
For the study, Benton recruited students from two on-campus psychology classes and, over Facebook, asked her friends to refer people they knew. She initially hoped for around 30 participants and ended up with 52.
Each participant completed the study individually. When they arrived, Benton administered a Beck Depression Inventory, which measures the severity of depression symptoms.
Afterward, Benton measured various responses, including cortisol, a hormone we release in response to stress, which she measured via saliva samples; heart rate; skin conductance (sweat); and respiration.
She took baseline readings for each of these components and then participants were placed in a room where a slideshow was playing. The three-minute slideshow consisted primarily of neutral images, such as nature, which each were on screen for about four seconds; however, there was one image designed to prompt a stress reaction: a scary-looking clown with a dark background.
“Even if people weren’t afraid of clowns, the dramatic change should cause alarm,” Benton explained. “Your body says, ‘What do I do?’” Her data confirmed the clown elicited a stress reaction.
After participants left the room, Benton took another baseline reading.
Results “exactly in the direction she predicted”
After she had collected all of her data, Benton divided her participants into three groups based on the Beck Depression Inventory: low, medium and high. Low had the lowest severity of depression symptoms while high had the highest severity of symptoms.
Her readings ended up being most significant for cortisol levels. Those with low depression severity levels had higher changes in their cortisol levels, and those with higher depression severity levels had lower changes in cortisol levels. She had changes in the other three criteria as well, but due to her data technique, her sample sizes were smaller for the heart rate, skin conductance and respiration.
Hankerson said she was impressed and surprised with the results of Benton’s study.
“It was exactly in the direction she predicted,” Hankerson said. “Even her data that wasn’t significant was in that direction. She wasn’t even targeting a depressed population, but she still found the results.”
Benton said she hopes to continue work on this project so she can collect more data. Hankerson noted that they’ve had some discussion of how they could work more. (Benton plans to study abroad this spring.)
“This is highly publishable,” Hankerson said. “It has implications on how to treat people with depression. We can see how many aspects of their lives are affected. It’s beyond the typical consideration. It might mean that people with depression might not react the same when seeing a car coming at them or a mugger.”
At the end of the summer, Benton and the rest of the scholars presented their research – with plenty of in-advance preparation provided by the Excel! program.
“I push them hard,” Fraction said. “But that way they understand, they do the follow-through and then see the outcome. You can see the joy and reward in their faces. They didn’t think they could do it, but they did.”
The support system was noticeable: Benton’s cohort sat in the front row.
“Presenting is a rush,” Benton said. “It’s great to tell people what you’re passionate about and see all the fields connecting.”
Also in the audience were Hankerson, Benton’s parents and her aunt (who is from Arizona), and two friends.
“We could not have been any prouder,” Kathy said. “[We were] absolutely amazed at how poised, mature and professional our daughter had become.”
Benton has presented her research at the MidBrains Undergraduate Neuroscience Conference of the Upper Midwest, a regional conference where Benton and another member of her cohort gave oral presentations. Benton also has applied to present in other places, including at the 23rd annual McNair Research Conference and Graduate Conference, which her cohort will attend. In the spring, Benton will study neuroscience in Denmark through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad. She’s taking at least two neuroscience courses and considering the benefits of doing research while abroad. For next summer, she’s beginning to look at her options, but one of her current top choices is the University of Minnesota.
In the long run, she wants to be a professor of neuroscience, keeping that focus on psychology, so she can share her work and experiences with other people.
“The program really challenges yourself,” Benton said. “You do things you didn’t think you can do and be supported. It’s very motivating to have that kind of support.”