ASPIRE Program Gets Students Into Labs Early

Photo of group standing
Some of the students and faculty participants in the ASPIRE program outside the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. The program gives students the chance to do hands-on research early in their undergraduate careers. 

Program Gets Students Into Labs Early

Psychology major Brynna Thigpen got an early introduction to scientific research. As a sophomore, she became a research assistant at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain, designing and conducting experiments on memory development in children.

Thigpen was one of six undergraduates to first participate in the Accelerating Success by Providing Intensive Research Experience program, or ASPIRE.

Founded in 2014, the program gives top students the chance to work with leading faculty in hands-on research in their freshman and sophomore years. The program grew to 11 students last year and will increase to about 18 this year.

Emily Kappenman (Ph.D., psychology, ’12) was a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Mind and Brain when she co-founded ASPIRE with Steve Luck, a psychology professor and the center’s director.

Kappenman, now an assistant professor of psychology at San Diego State University, received a UC Davis Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research last spring.

Opening doors

“My experiences in this lab have completely changed what I see myself doing in the future,” student Raphael Geddert wrote in supporting Kappenman’s nomination. “Emily’s mentorship opened doors I never foresaw.” 

Before ASPIRE, Kappenman trained a number of undergraduates in sophisticated research methods, Luck said. “However, she and I were both constantly frustrated by the fact that they didn’t usually start working in the lab until they were juniors or seniors, at which point it was too late to give them enough training for them to reach their full potential” (such as designing and running a truly substantial honors thesis project). 

Wide faculty participation

The program now lists 28 participating faculty members—leading researchers in psychology, neuroscience and economics. 

“So far, it has worked out great,” Luck said. “We have several students who started as sophomores two years ago and are now seniors working on honors theses.” 

Thigpen is one of them. She has spent two years working in the Memory and Development Lab directed by Simona Ghetti, professor of psychology and a faculty member at the Center for Mind and Brain. 

Postdoctoral mentor Janani Prabhakar “involved me deeply in her research, from teaching me how to run experiments, to involving me in experimental design, to asking me to coordinate experiments, to asking me to critique pilot studies, to reading papers,” Thigpen said. She presented her findings on preschoolers’ uncertainty of the future and adolescents’ reasoning skills at ASPIRE spring poster sessions in 2015 and 2016. 

This past summer, Thigpen worked 20 to 30 hours a week on a project that is the focus of her senior thesis. “I have gained many skills I plan to use in my future career, including collaboration with a team, working under superiors, becoming literate in statistics and research, learning how to read academic papers, working under a deadline, and communicating regularly with bosses.”

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science