SURCO students spend summer getting hands-on with research

(Note: This is the first in a multi-part series about student experiences using the SURCO grant for summer research.)

Years ago, behavioral psychology major Kennan Liston couldn’t have envisioned being where he is today.

“When I first started college out of high school, I was in the theater arts program and didn’t like it,” Liston said. “I took 5 years off before I decided to come back, and even then I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

Now Liston, a senior from Logan, is doing something he says he loves. Liston recently completed a research study funded by a Summer Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (SURCO) grant from the Office of Research and Graduate Studies.

In his research, Liston worked with rats in a laboratory, requiring them to press a lever a certain number of times before they could secure a food reward. He tested them on both a fixed schedule of reinforcement, where a certain number of lever presses were required for reinforcement, and a random schedule, where the number of lever presses required varied after each reinforcement.

“This study has been done with pigeons and monkeys, both of which have been seen to consistently defend the random schedule of reinforcement even when the average number of presses required is the same,” Liston said. “But with rats, about half of them do what we expect them to do, and half defend the fixed schedule of reinforcement.”

Liston said rats are more analogous to humans in this way in that not all humans prefer a fixed ratio, referencing some people’s tendency toward impulsivity in alcohol consumption and gambling behavior.

“Gambling is essentially defending the random schedule at the expense of a steady paycheck even though the goal of making money is the same,” Liston said.

Liston said the implications of his research could be the key to understanding addictions, impulsivity and other issues of behavioral psychology and economics.

Liston’s interest in psychology was sparked after taking an introductory behavioral psychology class from Greg Madden. One of Liston’s first experiments was teaching a rat to fire a catapult made from Legos. Later, during a chance encounter at a farmer’s market, Madden invited Liston to work in his lab.

Madden, a Ph.D. and professor with the Psychology Department in the College of Education and Human Services, worked as Liston’s mentor during his SURCO project. Liston said applying for and getting a SURCO grant allowed him to explore his passion further.

“I’m here working in the lab from 9 p.m. until 9 a.m. because that’s when the rats are awake,” Liston said. “Coming in that early isn’t a big deal to me because I love doing it, but if you weren’t into this at all, it might become a chore.”

Liston is currently working on a paper about his research and hopes to present what he learned at several showcases and conferences.

“There’s something about that empirical line of inquiry that’s more exciting than reading something out of a textbook,” Liston said. “There’s this thrill of discovering something part of the order of the universe, and I’m the person discovering it.”

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Elizabeth Hart, a junior from Idaho Falls, readily admitted that art is typically not thought of when talking about research.

“My research is creating work, not necessarily experiments and such,” said Hart, a ceramics major in the Department of Art and Design at the Caine College of the Arts.

So Hart was skeptical when she applied for a SURCO grant to help cover the cost of a two-week institute in Montana with renowned sculptor Richard Notkin learning about ceramic industry and slip-casting processes. Hart was one of approximately two dozen recipients of the grant.

“They only accepted like nine students to the institute, so I kind of had to jump the gun on applying before I knew if I had the grant,” Hart said with a laugh.

Slip casting involves making ceramics from plaster molds. The molds are filled with slip, or clay that has been treated with a deflocculant, a chemical that alters the particles of the clay to make it pourable and less viscous. Because the mold is porous, the clay dries from the outside in, and when the desired thickness for the piece is reached, the excess is poured out.

Hart said she had some experience doing slip casts, but not on near as advanced a level as she learned from Notkin. She said she was encouraged from within the department, including by mentor Dan Murhpy, associate professor of art, to attend because no professor at USU has expertise in slip casting.

“There really is a lot of techy and scientific stuff involved with it,” Hart said. “We learned about how to make our own slip ‘recipes’ and how to produce for industrial ceramics companies like Kohler. It was also a really good networking opportunity.”

Hart is currently working on a series of dining pieces with geode and crystalline-inspired shapes. She cuts smaller, individual pieces by hand and attaches them to the main form, making each piece unique. She said she wouldn’t be able to achieve the sharp, defined edges on her pieces without molds.

“I wanted it to be like something you would find in nature,” Hart said. “Even though slip casting is traditionally used as an industry process, I want to take it and be creative with it.”

Hart intends to showcase her completed works and help teach other students about slip casting from notes and pictures she took at the institute, as she is the first USU student to attend it.

And for Hart, the possibilities for her next project are endless.

“There are no steadfast rules, so you can make something totally weird that has never had a mold made of it before,” she said. “Once you learn the process you can kind of take it in whatever direction you want. Every time I make something new, it feels good, like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could do that!’”

-Seth Merrill, RGS Communications