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‘Research is really a cool thing’

LHS regional finalists prepare their projects


Perhaps someday, one of the many Lawrence High School students who conduct high-level research in behavioral science under the guidance of Dr. Stephen Sullivan will study the effects of being sleep-deprived and still being able to get the work done.

Until then, the students can commiserate about how much sleep they lose as they attend school, do their homework, conduct their research, take part in other school-related activities and work late into the night or very early in the morning.

The rewards appear to be worth it. Seniors Jece Abuan, Ariana Brown and Stacy Portillo and sophomore Bhawan Sandhu were named regional finalists and will compete in the ninth annual Long Island Psychology Fair, to be held at Roslyn High School on Jan. 11. Founded in 2008 by several Long Island high school teachers, the fair promotes the scientific study of psychology.

The students will present their research papers and PowerPoint presentations on behavioral science to a panel of judges that includes professors and graduate students. Overall, 30 projects — 20 individuals and 10 teams — were chosen from 100 submissions across Long Island. Students researched social, cognitive, educational, health, developmental and interdisciplinary psychology.

“You don’t sleep,” all four Lawrence High participants said, practically in unison, as they sat around the conference table in Principal Dr. Jennifer Lagnado’s office. “You’re up to 2 a.m. during that time,” Portillo said.

“My mom feeds me in the car,” Sandhu added.

Despite the lack of rest, all four were wide awake when they spoke with the Herald, enthusiastically detailing their projects, which in some cases are still being updated. They will also be submitted to other competitions and conferences, including the Regeneron Science Talent Search (formerly the Intel Science Talent Search) the Junior Science and Humanities Symposia at York College in February and the American Psychological Association conference in San Francisco in August.

Sullivan said that the primary reason for the success of students, past and present, is that they help and support one another. “The younger kids will help the older kids with their experiments,” he said, “and I’m more impressed by seniors whose experiments didn’t work out staying around to help others.”

Two years ago, Sandhu listened to Sullivan’s annual presentation to the eighth-graders at Lawrence Middle School about getting involved in behavioral science research. She was hooked, and emailed him immediately.

Her project, “Advantages of handwritten note-taking vs. laptop use in a youth sample,” found that more and better learning occurs when people are taking notes by hand instead of using a computer.

“In the two years, I realized I really like doing projects,” Sandhu said. “It’s interesting to find out new things and to process the information. You aren’t just learning from someone else. Research is really a cool thing.”

Brown, who said she learned how to be a better person, took her project, “Student heritage as a factor influencing performance on and perception of historical reasoning tasks,” to heart. “I learned we have to power past stereotypes — we’re capable of way more,” she said. “I have to expand my horizons.” Her research showed that a lack of exposure to different cultures impacts how you perceive and care about certain information.

Portillo not only learned from her research, but also found out that you need to set rules for the students who answered her survey questions and viewed the images she distributed to them. “I could tell who had what images by the way they talked,” she said of her project, “Can Exposure to Muscularity-Idealizing Images Promote Self-Objectification in Adolescent Males?” She found that just as girls are affected by images of the “perfect body,” boys are, too, and possibly just as much, if not more so.

Finding what Sullivan and his students were doing “interesting” Abuan got involved in his sophomore year, and completed his project, “Can Question Wording Impact Self-Reported Concern for the Environment?” this year. “I learned people really do believe that global warming is happening,” he said, noting how language impacted people’s responses.

All four are now either tweaking their projects or helping others with their research. The three seniors have applied or are applying to college. For Sullivan, it’s not only about the work. “It’s all about the relationships you forge,” he said. “If you go the extra mile, you could expect an extra 20 percent effort from the others for you.”