Inside a book-lined room in Ledford Hall, Meredith students sat around a conference table on a Monday night. They laughed at an inside joke about raccoons before getting down to business: Perfecting their analyses of research that explores emerging adults to present at academic conferences or submit to professional journals.
By the end of the two-hour meeting, they had lined up more meetups in the week ahead to polish their work, along with an informal group gathering. “Keep it rolling with the raccoon memes in the group chat,” said Allie Kvasnicka, a senior biology and psychology major and the lab’s student manager, as they packed up.
Welcome to the Meredith Emerging Adulthood Longitudinal Studies lab, or MEALS lab, as it’s called. Here, a rotating collection of Meredith undergraduate students and others have explored the ins and outs of academic research simply for the joy of learning, often without earning any academic credit.
Members dive into the lab’s focus – how friends, family, and other social supports can help young adults mitigate stress, foster resilience, and build on strengths, especially during the transition from high school to college and college to career. They come out with resume-building research, ambitious career plans, and connections that endure long after they leave campus.
“They have this thing at the very end [of their meeting] where they look at how they can support each other. And there are a million inside jokes,” said Cynthia Edwards, psychology professor and the lab’s principal investigator. “It’s all part of this culture of collaboration and support that provides a social home for academically- and intellectually-motivated and curious women.”
Remarkably well prepared
Edwards launched the lab in 2002 with help from Lisa Hahne Duke, ’04. After a brief hiatus, Lara Pantlin Southard, ’14, then a junior psychology major, revived it with Edwards. Southard planned to apply to graduate school and wanted to add more research experience to her resume. She had another aim, too.
“I wanted to make it more accessible for other students to experience research without having to have a full-fledged project,” said Southard, who earned a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from Colorado State University in 2019 and is now manager of data science and research at Salt Lake City Community College.
To keep students engaged, Southard broke down projects, giving students one piece at a time to complete. “That way they could actually enjoy research and not feel overwhelmed by it, which turns students away,” said Southard, who still checks in with the lab years after graduating.
Today, Southard’s vision continues in the MEALS lab as students fine-tune their work to present at regional and national conferences, often side-by-side with professional researchers and academics.
“They are remarkably well prepared,” said President Jo Allen, who has seen them present their work several times. “They are professional without being stuffy. And they make people want to keep talking to them, which is really what you want with an academic conversation.”
Finding a reason to be thankful
To conduct their research, students use multiple data sets to explore and answer a variety of questions about emerging adults, ages 17 to 26. The Halsch Endowment, Jesse Ball duPont Fund, and the Psychology Endowment provide funding for their work.
Their research is wide-ranging. Kvasnicka has been looking into how well first-year Meredith students who attend a summer symposium, designed for incoming multi-cultural students, transition into college. Morgan Hendrix, a senior psychology major who is taking graduate-level classes through Meredith’s relatively new industrial/organizational (I/O) Master of Arts in psychology program, has studied the characteristics in student relationships that lead to deeper connections among friends or romantic partners.
And as part of the Furthering Alumnae Resilience Through Higher Education Research project, lab members conducted focus groups with 2016 and 2017 graduates from Meredith’s education, social work, and psychology programs to learn how they’ve transitioned into the workforce.
Students reported on their findings in October at a professional meeting of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood in Toronto. They also delivered a report about their work to Meredith’s Board of Trustees.
“I think the biggest thing that we all found interesting was just how connected alumni were and still really relied on their faculty relationships at Meredith,” said Julia Johnson, a senior psychology major who also is participating in the I/O psychology program. “That was something so surprising to me and, honestly, was something that really made me feel even more thankful for my relationships with my professors.”
As Meredith leaders look for new ways to support women at work, Allen said she was excited to learn students already had some data about alumnae and that their insights will help the College find opportunities to strengthen Meredith’s own programs.
Academic rabbit holes
During that Monday night lab, students ran through a packed agenda. Their work included helping Jasmine Barnes, a senior psychology major, revise a poster she hoped to present at a state symposium for undergraduate research. They discussed how an equation should be presented and how to use the word “they,” based on the American Psychological Association’s new guidance.
“That was a nice academic rabbit hole,” said Hendrix, as they came to a resolution on the “they” question. Barnes later dropped clip art of a glasses-wearing rabbit into the online notes for the evening’s meeting.
Throughout it all, Edwards sat in an armchair, removed from the conference table, but ready with advice. For Kvasnicka, the experience in the lab has helped her hone her own leadership, mentorship, and research skills, which will all be useful as she pursues a graduate degree and career in genetic counseling.
Kvasnicka believes her experiences at Meredith were unique. “Dr. Edwards has cultivated this environment where we can work together in this manner and help each other be successful.”
Said Hendrix: “Just the thrill of being together and doing research is really why we all do it.”