Do I go straight to grad school or should I try to find a full time job—that’s a really huge ques­tion and you can’t Google it,” said recent grad­uate Lauren Sears. She opted for the latter, but with a bit of a twist: She is con­tin­uing a two-​​year-​​long research assist­ant­ship in Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Psy­chology Lisa Feldman Bar­rett’s Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Affec­tive Sci­ence Lab­o­ra­tory.

Sears is one of some 100 under­grad­u­ates to work in the lab this year alone. Many of them agree that the value of the expe­ri­ence is not lim­ited to hands-​​on research training, but also includes the men­tor­ship they get from working side by side with grad­uate stu­dents and post docs. “I got so much advice from them,” said Sears.

Another stu­dent, fifth-​​year Anna Neu­mann, said the lab has pro­vided her much more than a tra­di­tional research assist­ant­ship. “The lab has a bunch of fruit on the tree, and if you climb high enough you can get what­ever fruit you want,” she said. “If you put in the time, you get ten­fold back.”

Lauren Sears (left) and Tamina Daru­vala (center) are two of nearly 70 under­grad­uate stu­dent researchers in psy­chology pro­fessor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s (right) lab, one of the largest on campus. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The lab is focused on one main ques­tion: What are emo­tions? But the projects stu­dents work on span a cross sec­tion of dis­ci­plines, methods, and inves­ti­ga­tions. Sears has been working on a project aimed at under­standing whether dif­ferent indi­vid­uals’ feel­ings and phys­i­o­log­ical reac­tions to arousing and evoca­tive stimuli can pre­dict how they will react to emo­tional infor­ma­tion out­side of their aware­ness. The team mea­sures things such as heart rate, skin con­duc­tance, facial muscle move­ments, and res­pi­ra­tion to deter­mine if our phys­i­o­log­ical response can be a pre­dictor of how they react to the unseen.

Recent grad­uate Dalal Alhomaizi is using a sim­ilar approach to study an entirely dif­ferent ques­tion. “We’re looking at how con­cepts play a role in how emo­tions are con­structed,” she said. Here, a com­puter screen in the lab quickly flashes words rep­re­senting par­tic­ular emo­tions in front of a par­tic­i­pant who has been tasked with labeling the emo­tion rep­re­sented in each image. In this case, the team is exam­ining how lan­guage plays a role in our con­cept of emotion.

Neu­mann works on a project studying peo­ples’ shifting per­cep­tions of food. For instance, if a par­tic­i­pant is pre­sented with an image of a baby sheep before being asked to com­ment on how appe­tizing a plate of lamb chops looks, he might have a dif­ferent response than if the order were reversed.

What’s really cool about working with Dr. Bar­rett,” said Neu­mann, “is that she has changed the field so much that we’re always at the fore­front of it, right at the edge of where this sci­ence stands.” Sears and Alhomaizi shook their heads in agreement.