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Mastery Through Mentorship

  Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The two psychology professors have seen a lot and been a part of countless undergraduate lives, teaching and training students in a wide array of courses and research methods. Their latest endeavor combines all that experience with a crucial element – care for the whole student – in a lab aimed at propelling graduates through the ranks of higher education and into rewarding careers.

Doolittle, who specializes in industrial and organizational psychology, came to Christopher Newport in 1988, joining Greenlee, a developmental and educational psychology expert, who arrived in 1987. They devised the Applied Experimental Lab (APEX) in 2009 to offer students one-to-one mentorship with a focus on post-graduate outcomes, all while conducting serious research on a host of psychology topics.

At APEX students learn in a hands-on atmosphere where they must devise appropriate experimental techniques, complete literature reviews, test subjects, and enter and analyze data. Each student must also present his or her findings in a professional venue before leaving the lab. It’s no small feat, but one Doolittle and Greenlee are quick to point to as a success. Dozens of lab members to date have been represented in a presentation at a local, regional, national or international conference, whether their own work or research sponsored by the lab. “These are major projects,” Doolittle says. “Everybody went to or had their name on something that was presented in a way so they could put it on a resume – a professional presentation. You can’t really get into psych graduate school without some kind of presentation,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of success with it.” According to Doolittle, the program boasts a 73 percent admission rate to graduate school.

Indeed, where participants go after CNU receives equal billing with research at APEX. “Students do great research in other labs, but with us, they also have to talk about their future plans,” Doolittle says. Each student must research different graduate programs and ways to best complete an application. “We go over what they should expect and how to prepare and sell themselves,” Greenlee says. “There’s a lot of group support, and that’s important for these students, especially if they’re first-generation. They might feel like they can’t go to their parents because their parents don’t know the answer. But they feel comfortable enough with us that they open up.” Students not planning on advanced study must research other potential career options and present them to the group.

As Doolittle says, many APEX participants are the first in their family to attend college. It’s a demographic near and dear to her and Greenlee, both of whom were first-generation and who found mentors who empowered them and aided their success. “Research was one area I was really lacking when I went off to graduate school,” Greenlee says. “If I had connected with someone who could have walked me through the process a little bit better as an undergraduate, I would have been better prepared.” Doolittle agrees: “I think we see ourselves in these students,” she says. “If it hadn’t been for two faculty members who went over and above what they needed to, then maybe I wouldn’t be here.” Greenlee adds,“In some ways we’re paying it forward.”

For Marie Tate (’15), the APEX experience was transformational. Her work included experiments and projects on sexual offenders, post-traumatic stress disorder and stress-coping methods, all of which opened her eyes to possibilities in the field. “I was able to explore different topics and was exposed to a lot of different research methods that prepared me for graduate school,” she says. “Working with professors who truly care about students not only helped me gain professional experience as an undergraduate but also gave me an advantage as I went on to graduate school.” Tate is currently enrolled in the graduate behavioral science program at the University of Rhode Island.

Another APEX participant, Christina Martin (’15) joined the lab her sophomore year and spent three years working on a host of projects, mainly racial identity in African-American and biracial students. Through the lab she gained valuable experience, but her chief takeaway was the mentorship and close attention she received. “I knew I wanted to attend graduate school, but as a first-generation college student I had no idea what steps I needed to take in order to make that dream a reality,” she says. “Dr. Greenlee saw something in me before I could see anything in myself, and she took me under her wing.”

The research experience Martin gained in the lab had direct application in her current PhD studies in counseling psychology at the State University of New York at Albany, but it was Greenlee’s and Doolittle’s holistic approach that had a much greater impact on her personal growth. “APEX is about more than just research,” she says. “It’s about mentorship and growth for students. I walked away with confidence in myself, confidence

and faith to know I will fulfill my passions in the future, and it was a direct result of the mentorship and support Dr. Greenlee gave me over the years. I would not be where I am today without her.”

The lab operates in such a way that projects are always in different stages, with distinct roles for participants, from data collection to leadership, which allows students to understand the experimental process from inception to completion. “I don’t think most undergraduates in a psych department get that much exposure,” Doolittle says. It’s a vastly different experience from what is found at larger schools, where the focus is on graduate and doctoral students; CNU’s size and focus on undergraduates paves the way for labs like APEX to succeed. “When you’re at some of the larger institutions, they really don’t have time to help you develop unless you’re a graduate student,” says Doolittle. “To develop your idea and take it forward, that’s one of the things we do.” Tate agrees: “The best part of the lab is having an experience most undergraduates do not have a chance to have. APEX and the mentorship of Professors Greenlee and Doolittle was the most beneficial part of my undergraduate career,” she says.

As for the future, Doolittle and Greenlee plan to build a focus on writing into APEX and are looking into ways to expand the program beyond the walls of the Psychology Department. “Every year the light bulb goes on a little bit, and we start to think of more we should be doing or possibly could do,” Greenlee says. They are considering applying for National Science Foundation funding to scale up the APEX model and bring it to other sciences and beyond to offer more students the same type of rich research and mentorship APEX participants experience.

The work at APEX all comes back to the personal touch for the two professors. Their hard-earned success over decades as female scientists has given them a unique perspective that can help others blaze a trail behind them. “I think what a lot of people don’t really understand about many faculty is that sometimes it’s seeing the work you’ve put into somebody pay off in the end,” Doolittle says.

In a time when outcomes – how many students go to graduate school or find a job after college – matter more and more, it helps to have caring faculty committed to just that.

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