Grad Student Experience

Neo's POSTS: new school | lost in translation | It's a Process | So What?

New school, new state, new adventures!

As I start my doctoral graduate degree at the University of Florida in health and human performance with a concentration in human behavior, I am reminded of my first days as an undergraduate at Montgomery College and then as a transfer student at the University of Maryland, where I also later completed my masters in clinical psychology.

I’m reminded of the days before google maps and walking around with a giant school map. I’m reminded of  feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size of Maryland, which hosted 35,000 students. Little did I know where I’d end up a few years later. UF, not to be outdone, has stepped up, with over 50,000 students that is nearly half the city it sits in. I think (hope) my experiences in undergrad both coming from a big school and a peer institution to UF has prepared me well. We’ll see how well I fare!

In the meantime, I’ve had a chance to come down to UF in June as part of the Board of Education Fellowship, which has allowed me to get acclimated to the weather, get used to the school, find a place to live, and explore the city. I’m excited to see the range of activities the city and the school have to offer as I will be here for the next few years, at least. So far, I’ve had the chance to explore Lake Wauburg and partake in some team building activities with other participants of the fellowship. The July 4th festivities around town were also lively and a sight to behold.

While we are all eagerly anticipating the arrival of fall, the beginning of school year to get my program officially underway, I’ve had a chance to meet with the folks I’ll be working with the next few years in our labs, including my advisor, Dr. Richard Yi. I chose Dr. Yi to be my advisor not only because he was also from Maryland, but more importantly, because of the research that he conducts. Throughout undergrad I had struggled to fully capture and explain what exactly I wanted to do - I could not narrow it down. I wanted to study human behavior, so psychology was appealing to me. I also wanted to explore the order and logic in people’s behaviors, so theories from economics were attractive to me. I was eager to use the skills I would learn to problem solve and bring about real change - which meant public policy. It was difficult finding a field that encapsulates all of these interests. The years I took off in between to work in the real world only reinforced these ideals and interests.

The president of the University of Maryland, Dr. Wallace Loh, had a saying he recited quite a few times. He said something to the effect of “They give you a high school diploma when you think you know everything. They give you a college degree when you realize that you don’t know anything. They give you a graduate degree when you realize that even your professors don’t know anything.”

I have had a few of those realizations. The road to Ph.D. is a daunting undertaking. But one I think I’m ready to tackle with the support of my family, friends, colleagues, professors, and the several resources the UF has to offer. Here’s to questioning conventional wisdom, critical thinking, and pushing both my own and my professors knowledge to the limit

Lost in Translation — Trying to Make Sense of Irrational Behavior

There were 56,400,000 deaths in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. Of those, approximately two thirds (37,600,000 deaths) were attributed to noncommunicable diseases (such as tobacco use, physical inactivity, alcohol overuse, etc). Research suggests that these noncommunicable diseases are primarily driven by behavioral choices. There are many fields that try to address this issue from various angles - medicine heals the ill, public health disseminates health messages to the mass, public policy sets laws and regulations (hopefully) to ensure healthcare, business studies consumer behavior, etc. Of these, economics, more specifically neoclassical or standard economics, has been used to predict people’s behavior. However, in the last few decades, there has been a move away from the assumptions of standard economics, chiefly that people are rational, an assumption which has raised questions about our rationality. What has resulted, as some might argue, a more ecologically valid approach, is behavioral economics.

As a new graduate student, I’m still making my way through the literature. The more and more I dive into the world of behavioral economics, which weds the fields of psychology and economics in the study of human behavior, the more and more I realize that the two fields have so much in common, but actively share very little. It is challenging to find a succinct description of what a behavioral economist specifically does besides to say that they are behavioral scientists that study judgement and decision making in essentially all aspects of life. The field has examined such varied human behavior from consumer choices to addiction to health care insurance decisions, organ donation, retirement savings, and the list goes on. Here at UF, my lab, the decision and behavioral sciences (DABS) lab, implements behavioral economic approaches in basic and applied research in exploring health behaviors such as addiction, obesity, and risky behaviors.

The gap that behavioral economics is trying to close between these two fields, psychology and economics, which also incorporates concepts from business, marketing, public health, sociology, and public policy, among others is wide. It will take years to build the bridge and it starts with the words we use. What a psychologist might call relapse when discussing addictions, an economist might call a preference reversal; happiness or benefit gained in psychology is utility in economics; and the list goes on. Thought leaders in these two fields have studied, philosophized, hypothesized, theorized, and tested human behavior in several ways for several decades. However, it seems to me that their collaborative efforts have been inhibited because they are essentially speaking different languages. This, I believe, is at the heart of the lack of translational and collaborative work that has stifled growth and development of practical approaches in both fields.

Another divide is the basic assumptions in the fields. Economics assumes that people are rational beings. However, psychological studies have shown time and again that people are irrational. Furthermore, not only are we irrational, the last few decades of research has shown that we are, as Dan Ariely, professor at Duke University, succinctly captures in the title of his book when he said that people are ‘predictably irrational’. This predictability in our irrational decision making is largely the focus of behavioral economics. Assuming that people are perfectly rational under all circumstances, as we know, is of course not accurate. The recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics, Richard Thaler, of his book Nudge fame, professor at the University of Chicago, famously calls these highly rational creatures, Homo economics.

Thaler further emphasized the need for the study of decision making under uncertainty recently on an episode of Hidden Brain when he said, economists “might as well be studying unicorns” because people are not homo economics. For the field of economics to be impactful to its fullest extent, we need to introduce the irrationality of homo sapiens to its models. And that is what behavioral economics aims to achieve. This transdisciplinary field has come to fruition over the past few decades and has made several tangible impacts in several fields.

As we are interested in health and human performance in this college, we can see that there are several behavioral economic concepts that have been applied to the area of human health and behavior including the use of incentives and rewards in changing people’s behavior to get them to stop smoking or start exercising, setting defaults in policy setting to increase organ donations or retirement savings, discounting of delayed rewards in long term decision making, among others. I will delve into these further in future posts, but suffice it to say that behavioral economic concepts can be found in all aspects of our daily lives, sometimes when we are not even aware of them.

To address this lack of awareness that is present not only in the lay public, but also in the scientific community, across disciplines, such a transdisciplinary field is needed that serves as melting pot of ideas and has these cross-disciplinary theories and approaches built in. It will not only increase real-world and practical solutions to the dynamic challenges that are facing us in the 21st century, but also serve as a launching pad for other fields to take note and start incorporating translational science practices into their daily work and further, into the training of the next generation of scientists. By developing transferable skills, similar language, and opportunities for an interdisciplinary approach, we can develop solutions that can bring about dramatic improvements in behavior change and health outcomes.

It’s a process

If you found this blog exploring UF’s graduate programs, or somehow stumbled upon it just browsing, I think it is safe to assume you are in or are interested higher education. HHP is home to an assortment of departments and fields, and the graduate degrees and interests pursued by those of us even in the same department can vary. The common thread across these fields and others in higher learning, most fundamentally to graduate education, is conducting research. As graduate students, we are striving to absorb what came before us - as Google Scholar’s home page proclaims, “Stand on the shoulders of giants,” - before we can add our own two cents.

In my interactions with other new doctoral students and in my own experience – only slightly over one semester of it to be exact – I have been struck by the constant barrage of questions we have as we learn concepts or do a deep dive into ideas that are new to us. It’s as if we’ve regained our child-like curiosity of asking boundless questions, pushing boundaries and challenging suppositions of our fields.

It is an interesting balance being a novice student scientist while still developing expertise and contributing to our knowledge base. It is a challenging process, one that can quickly be self-defeating as one thinks of an idea, a question, a potential new perspective, and just as quickly find out that it is not entirely new after some deep dive into the literature. We must develop a thick skin – a way to be ok with constantly asking questions that have already been answered one way or another. We must allow ourselves enough time to absorb the massive amounts of information in the scientific knowledge base before we know exactly how we can contribute to it. As we race urgently toward making relevant contributions to the knowledge base that is ever growing in whatever it is that we do, we must remember that it will take us some time to take it all in, process, and produce something of value.

It’s not just time management skills that we must learn to masterfully juggle the plethora of balls that we must keep in the air as we go through graduate school – between the classes we take and the classes we teach; planning our next research project, while conducting the current one, analyzing and writing up the one we just wrapped up; the posters and papers to submit, to revise, to present; along with the grants and other projects of our mentors and lab mates coupled with department/college/university obligations/seminars/talks to attend and actively participate in; in addition to any semblance of social life and other academic and social extracurricular activities to balance; along with some time for self-care, recovery and balance – can all be overwhelming. While this is not a post about time-management and the wonders you can achieve when you schedule your 168 hours week just right, it is about the struggle of finding what works for you and allowing the process to unfold. A reminder that it is supposed to be difficult, and hard, and challenging, and at the same time, stimulating, and inspiring, and exciting. It is a reminder that while the drive to excel in academics may have gotten us here, for most us, it is not entirely what will sustain us. It is a reminder that it is going to be a process.

It will not happen overnight. It is a reminder to allow ourselves to be stupefied by the overwhelming nature of a doctoral degree in all its nitty gritty glory. It is, indeed, what will prepare us for the rest of our lives – for what awaits us after – for none of the aforementioned demands be it academic, research, or social, will go away after the three letters are suffixed to our names. It is though this process that we will identify what is important to us, what we will dedicate our lives to – because indeed how you spend your hour is how you spend your day, and so goes your week, your year, your life. It is toilsome, but when you come out the other end victorious, you will have the power to choose what to dedicate your life to, to find a problem to solve, to make your mark, and to add your two cents. We must allow ourselves the time to be ok with the overwhelming nature of the undertaking we have chosen – that neigh 50% of those who start don’t complete – that we must take it one step at a time.

So what?

Inherent in having those three letters affixed after your name is the expectation that you have spent a considerable amount critically studying your field and have made some contribution to your field’s knowledge base – if nothing else, your dissertation. This role of a knowledge creator also implies that you have spent some time philosophizing as you are a Doctor of Philosophy in your niche area.

Knowledge for the sake of knowing is important and has its own value, as does philosophy. But under the current political climate, which drives where the government (NIH, CDC, etc) spend their money, which then drives the future of research, for better or worse. As budgets get tight and get trimmed here and there, I think it is our responsibility as scientists to be on the forefront of doing practical and impactful research and to be careful of how we spend taxpayers’ dollars. This accountability must be in the back of our mind as we do research.

We have the privilege to pick a problem that we think is interesting and to get to come up creative solutions. If you step back and consider it, it is a wonderful way to make a living. For me, that niche has been addressing preventable health behavior problems, such as substance use, addiction, and risky sexual behaviors, among others. I am interested in judgement and the decision-making process and how people perceive risk and how that impacts our lives.

Today marks the day that I have officially finished data collection for my very own first study – all 200 people are in. Working with Dr. Richard Yi, we have been working to examine how people perceive HIV treatment outcomes and how that can impact their decision making. We are also doing a similar study with other STIs that are focused on college students. The findings from this study can be very informative as to how public health messaging is framed. I can’t wait to get into the data and start analyzing it.

I am grateful for this opportunity. We don’t always have the time to step back and get perspective on our day to day lives. My aim is not to romanticize research. Don’t get me wrong – the devil is in the details. Getting participants, working through the slow bureaucracy, etc can take the fun out of it sometimes. It also makes me appreciate I have this blog to step back and reflect.

As I am already writing up my next protocol for my next studies - I’m doing it on hookah use, another growing problem, in case you were wondering – I try my best to remind myself to do relevant and impactful research. Not only to be responsible of how the funding is being spent, but to also bring about meaningful changes. At the end of the day, while it is awesome we get to do research, problem solve whatever issue we have chosen to spend our time to think and philosophize about, we have to ask ourselves – so what? We have to ensure that our research, our times, our mentors’ and others’ resources are being spent in an efficient and most impactful manner. So before you start on your next project ask yourself – so what? Will this make a difference? And if not, take a step back – revise and resubmit.