Student record

NSF CAREER Award Supports Research to Improve Student Mental Health

May 4, 2022

assistant professor Katelyn Cooperresearcher in biology education at Arizona State University School of Life Sciencesrecently received a National Science Foundation Early Career Development Award (CAREER).

The prestigious CAREER program identifies the nation’s most promising young faculty who demonstrate outstanding research, teaching excellence, and effective integration of the two.

Kately Cooper is a biology education researcher whose work aims to understand the relationship between biology learning environments and the mental health of undergraduate and graduate students.
Download Full Image

“Being the recipient of the CAREER award in its first submission is a testament to both the quality of its research ideas and its strong research record,” said Sara Brownell, professor at the School of Life Sciences and director of Research for Inclusive STEM Education (RISE). “Even as an early-career researcher, she is becoming one of the nation’s top biology education researchers, and the RISE Center is extremely proud of her accomplishments.”

Cooper’s lab focuses on understanding the relationship between biology learning environments and the mental health of undergraduate and graduate students. The award will support a five-year research program to identify factors in students’ research experiences that positively and negatively impact mental health, and to develop tools and resources to support students throughout their experiences. of research.

“Dr. Cooper exemplifies our commitment to life-changing research and to excellence in teaching and mentorship,” said Jennifer Fewell, acting director of the Faculty of Life Sciences. “It’s wonderful to see his important work continue with the support of the NSF CAREER Award.”

Rates of depression among undergraduate and graduate science students continue to rise, and participation in academic research experiences is a previously under-examined factor impacting student mental health.

“This CAREER award will allow us to explore what aspects of research alleviate and exacerbate depressive symptoms in students, why this is the case, and what students and mentors can do to protect mental health,” Cooper said. .

Most researchers and educators agree that hands-on immersive research is one of the most lucrative experiences students can engage in. Engaging in research equips students with problem-solving, professional development, and communication skills. However, science is also a highly competitive field, infamously characterized by repeated failures, which can lead to doubt and negative self-talk.

“My research group has discovered that there are wonderful aspects of research, such as building positive relationships with lab colleagues and feeling part of the scientific community, and these aspects can be really protective. against depressive symptoms,” Cooper said. “But the research can also lead you to feel really isolated, to be harshly criticized and to doubt what you are capable of, which in turn can exacerbate depressive symptoms.”

A better understanding of the correlation between these experiences and student mental health will allow institutions to structure research experiences that maximize student mental health, while equipping students with the tools and resources to better overcome common challenges and issues. barriers in science.

The project is divided into two main components – a national survey of undergraduate and graduate researchers and their experiences with depression in the research context. The data collected during the study will then be used to develop one-session interventions designed to help students develop effective coping strategies for common challenges encountered in research.

Similar interventions have proven very successful with K-12 students, and Cooper is excited to explore their potential to help higher education as well. These sessions will be combined with recommendations for mentors on how to support students and open up conversations to further help students who are struggling.

“It’s very encouraging that research experiences can be structured to maximize student mental health,” Cooper said.

She explained that even simple adjustments such as adding more structure, increasing face-to-face time, or assigning additional mentors can be very effective in easing depressive symptoms.

“It’s something that really excites me,” she said.

Prize funds will also support new programs aimed at further integrating research and teaching. Cooper will develop and teach course-based undergraduate research experiences (CURE) that build on the work conducted in the overall project. These CURE in biology teaching will be accessible to U.S.S. online students, providing hands-on research opportunities for many students who have never been involved in such projects.

“My enthusiasm is twofold: I’m excited to engage students in large-scale mental health research, and I’m truly excited to engage our online students who bring such diverse and important perspectives to this work,” said said Cooper.

“I am extremely grateful that this CAREER award allows me to continue to do so, because I think it will really strengthen the quality of the research that we carry out on undergraduate and graduate mental health in biology. »