Graduate students gain top research experience with GRAM

  • Emily Butler measures heart rate variability on a test subject, while her mentor, Dr. Karen Caldwell, oversees.

Close, personal instruction from faculty. Data that improves people's lives. These are among the outcomes of Appalachian State University's special Graduate Research Associate Mentor program.

Known as GRAM, the program offers outstanding students in the Cratis D. Williams Graduate School the opportunity to work alongside a professor on meaningful research for two years. Students receive a $10,000 stipend for work averaging 20 hours a week during the academic year, and they are mentored by faculty with multi-year research or clinical/professional work and a record of effective mentoring.

"The GRAM program has helped significantly with my research," said Dr. Scott Collier, an expert in cardiovascular exercise science in the Department of Health, Leisure and Exercise Science. "This program has enabled me to do more, but it also gives my student great experience for her Ph.D. studies. I'm sure she will be considered by some of the best research schools."

GRAM students must have a minimum 3.5 grade point average and score in the 50th percentile on standardized tests.

Meet three GRAM students making a difference in North Carolina:

Chelsea Curry, exercise science

Preventing childhood obesity

North Carolina has the sixth highest rate of overweight and obese children in the nation, and Watauga County has a higher proportion of 5 to 11 year olds at risk of obesity than the state as a whole. First-year graduate student Chelsea Curry wants to focus on more than just medical treatments for cardiovascular diseases that can result from being overweight. "I feel that an intervention to decrease the risk of these diseases earlier on in life is more advantageous than clinical treatment later in life," said Curry, who earned her bachelor's degree from Appalachian in 2010.

Last summer, she studied the effect of activity on cardiovascular and metabolic variables in 22 children ages 8 to 12, focusing on arterial pulse wave velocity (the speed of blood flow through the body) and arterial elasticity. Half the group participated in supervised, planned activities for eight weeks while the others had regular unsupervised summer break.

The supervised children hiked, swam and enjoyed other activities for about six hours a day for five days a week. The active group showed a significant decrease in resting heart rate, while the control group showed no change. They also showed significant decreases in arterial stiffness, which leads to lower blood pressure. These both lead to lower risk for cardiovascular diseases.

Curry's research was funded in part by the Appalachian-BeActive Partnership, which promotes more physical activity for Western North Carolinians. Her results show that an active lifestyle for a child decreases resting heart rate, percent body fat and blood pressure, and increases fitness level. As part of the study, Curry had to measure the children's blood pressure, resting heart rate, energy expenditure at rest, and other cardiovascular variables. "Chelsea has been a natural in the lab," said her mentor, Dr. Scott Collier. "She understood the equipment and knew how to use it before she was a graduate student. Having her help in the lab is like having a Ph.D. student helping out."

Curry is studying exercise science in Appalachian's Department of Health, Leisure and Exercise Science in the College of Health Sciences. She plans to go physician's assistant school or pursue a Ph.D.

Emily Butler, clinical mental health counseling

Reducing stress through mindfulness

The concept of mindfulness is an Eastern practice in which a person attempts to stay in the present moment through the practice of mind-body exercises like Pilates and Tai Chi.

Second-year graduate student Emily Butler is pursuing a clinical mental health counseling degree in the Reich College of Education's Department of Human Development and Psychological Counseling, with concentrations in marriage and family counseling as well as addiction counseling. As a GRAM student, she is helping Dr. Karen Caldwell conduct a pilot study on the physiological effects that mindfulness has on heart rate variability. Caldwell's expertise is mindfulness-based stress reduction.

"When people are relaxed, the heart rate is more varied," said Caldwell. "When people are more excited or angry, the heart rate tends to be steadier. We are trying to determine if mindfulness practices such as Pilates or Tai Chi correlate to well-being." "This has been a great learning experience," said Butler of her time as a graduate research associate. "I came from a very heavily research-based program. I like the more practitioner-based study here. I'm more interested in research and counseling, rather than just research, and I get to do that with this program," she said.

Butler received a B.S. degree from the University of Pittsburgh double majoring in psychology and English writing. Butler became interested in Appalachian after she befriended an Appalachian undergraduate student while working at a summer camp in Aiken, S.C. "She sparked my interest in the area and the program was just what I was looking for," she said.

After receiving her graduate degree, Butler hopes to work in the field of counseling. She said that getting a Ph.D. is a possibility after she gains more experience. "I feel like you need more experience in the field before you can teach other people how to do anything," she said.

Laci Zawilinski, clinical health psychology

Using exercise to prevent anxiety attacks

Second-year graduate student Laci Zawilinski and her mentor, Dr. Josh Broman-Fulks, are conducting a study to determine what effects aerobic and strength-training exercises have on anxiety sensitivity, a risk factor for developing pathological anxiety and panic attacks.

"We use physical exercise to induce anxiety-related sensations in people who are fearful of them to reduce their fear," said Broman-Fulks. "We are discovering that participation in aerobic exercise reduces fear of anxiety sensations and may decrease risk for panic attacks." The results of this study will provide implications for the treatment of and possible prevention of anxiety-related mental health problems.

"I am so fortunate to be a graduate research assistant with the GRAM program," said Zawilinski. "It's so much more rewarding and it provides a better educational experience than most assistantships. There are just more opportunities available that aren't available otherwise."

"Laci has taken full advantage of the program," said Broman-Fulks. "She works 20 hours per week in the lab doing research, and her drive makes her extremely productive. Laci will leave the program being as well published as many young faculty members."

Zawilinski is pursuing an M.A. in clinical health psychology through the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Psychology. She received a bachelor's degree from Florida State University in psychology. She then worked at Florida State's Anxiety and Behavioral Health Clinic for two years, assisting in a grant-funded treatment outcome investigation. When she started discussing graduate school with her supervisor, he recommended Broman-Fulks and Appalachian's clinical health psychology program.

Zawilinski's future plans are to continue working in academia, conducting research and teaching.