Research Ruminations

Alejandra Lopez and Sydney Kong: A Look Into DiSH Lab @ UCLA

Interviewer and Editor: Selena Perez

In this article, Selena Perez interviews Alejandra Lopez (Lab Manager) and Sydney Kong (Research Assistant) from Dr. Tomiyama’s DiSH Lab. The DiSH Lab conducts research aimed toward understanding the relationship between food and psychology. In this interview, she examines the experience of working at a UCLA research laboratory, including how valuable and at times, challenging the opportunity can be.

Selena: Alejandra, could you explain what some of your duties are as a lab manager, as well as how holding this position has been a valuable experience for you as a scholar?

Alejandra: Yeah, so some of my duties include grant budgeting (making sure we have enough money for all of our studies and that we don’t run out) as well as working closely with two study coordinators in the lab on designing an effective study protocol for the two studies we’re going to be launching very soon, working closely with Dr. Tomiyama on several ongoing studies, and next quarter I’ll also be TA’ing for one of her classes. That’ll be a great experience in preparation for grad school because, of course, I’m going to have to TA in grad school so kind of learning the back end of how classes work and so on will be useful. I also am in charge of planning and leading undergraduate research assistant meetings to facilitate the professional development of the undergrads in our lab. I also mentor students from several different research programs, such as Sydney. She’s in the departmental honors program but I also mentor another student who is in PROPS (the Psychology Research Opportunities Program). I help them refine their research interests, formulate hypotheses, and kind of improve their scientific writing. I also work on several different studies kind of aside from mentoring, just for my own experience. Right now I’m a part of seven studies in the lab and they’re all in different stages of the research process, from training research assistants to planning for the launch to data collection, data analysis, and manuscript writing. This is all great preparation for when I’m in graduate school and when I have a career in academia since I won’t just be working on one study but several different ones simultaneously.

Selena: Sydney, could you explain what some of your duties are as a research assistant, as well as how holding this position has been a valuable experience for you as a scholar?

Sydney: Like Alejandra said, I’m a research assistant but I’m also completing a departmental honors thesis. So, departmental honors is basically a one-year program where I get to conduct an individual research project under the guidance of Dr. Tomiyama and with help from Alejandra of course, that culminates basically into a full thesis. For this project I’m leading, I have my own hypotheses, I explore different topics, I’ve created a coding scheme, and currently, I’m looking through the coding and analyzing the data with Alejandra. With this project comes the responsibility of an honors thesis which I’m currently writing up— so doing my own literature review and then also participating in one-on-one meetings with Dr. Tomiyama to talk about this project. In the future, I’ll be able to work on projects outside of the department’s honors, so hopefully finding participants and doing tasks that the other research assistants do. As for the benefits that the DiSH Lab has given me, I would say that it’s opened up a lot of doors for me career-wise and it’s helped my professional development and even the way that I think and how I approach problems in the world. I’d say specifically departmental honors has allowed me to gain a lot of leadership opportunities where I get to manage the whole process or be a part of the whole process with some guidance from Dr. Tomiyama and Alejandra. That also gives me a lot of insight into graduate school and helps me understand what the day-to-day tasks of graduate school look like. One thing that I really appreciate in terms of what the DiSH Lab has done for me as an RA, is having those one-on-one meetings with Dr. Tomiyama. No matter how busy she is, which she’s always busy, she always makes an effort to have a one-on-one meeting with me as an undergraduate research assistant. This has really helped me shape my personal goals through discussing grad school and discussing how I want to integrate research into my future. 

Selena: How do you think assisting in research prepared you or is preparing you early on for conducting research of your own as you progress in your career?

Alejandra: I would say just learning about the whole process and getting hands-on experience by helping out with studies is preparing me. The first study I was on, I started out coding data just like Sydney is. Since then, I’ve had more opportunities to work on different studies and take on leadership roles. I think it’s a valuable experience to be able to see how things work from a leadership perspective instead of just being an RA and doing what you’re told. In leadership, you get to develop study protocols, help brainstorm ideas on how to administer manipulation, and determine what’s more effective than something else. You also do literature reviews and examine how other researchers have done the same things that we’re interested in doing.

Selena: When searching for labs to apply to, what ultimately convinced you that DiSH Lab was the best fit for you?

Sydney: There are so many factors to consider when you are applying to labs or thinking about which research lab you want to go into, and I think that ultimately falls into what you’re passionate about and what you’re thinking about pursuing in the future. Before I joined the DiSH Lab, I was part of a cognitive psychology lab and I was exploring my different options. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t that interested in cognitive psychology, so having that little buffer period allowed me to really look inward and figure out what I wanted to do. As I was searching through different labs and thinking about what kind of subjects I’m interested in, I realized that I’ve always been interested in weight stigma, which is what I’m studying now. I’ve always looked at the differences between my culture (since I’m Asian-American) and other cultures and thought about how weight is looked upon and how it affects people of different cultures and things like that. That’s what really inspired me to look more into the DiSH Lab. While researching DiSH Lab, I realized how much hands-on training and one-on-one mentorship you get there, which is really hard to find in most labs. Being able to meet with Alejandra and Dr. Tomiyama, really attracted me to apply and join DiSH Lab. I think it’s all about fitting your interests and passions, and then what kind of environment you want to be a part of. 

Alejandra: Yeah, I totally agree. Initially, I was part of a behavioral and neuroscience lab. It was the first lab I joined at UCLA and it was a great experience in terms of seeing how research is done, but they worked with rodents, which is a great experience too, but I just realized that it wasn’t for me. Taking “Introduction to Health Psychology”, I learned about Dr. Tomiyama’s research even though I took it with a different professor. I was really interested in comfort eating and what emotions and affective states lead to comfort eating, as well as what comfort eating does to alleviate those emotions. That was what initially drew me to the DiSH Lab, but since being here I’ve also become interested in weight stigma and food insecurity and all those really important topics that we study.

Selena: DiSH Lab focuses on the intersectional relationship between food and psychology. What advice do you have for those looking to conduct research in fields that are particularly multifaceted?

Sydney: In terms of skill set and how to be a part of a lab that combines multiple subjects rather than just one, I would say you have to first make sure you’re definitely interested in that intersection. I know that there are some people who are super interested in one specific topic like the brain vs its impacts and the environment, so I’d say make sure you know that that intersection in that specific field is something you want to do and that you have a passion for finding that applied intersection in the real world.

Alejandra: Yeah, I would just echo everything Sydney said and encourage anyone interested to just research. Look into various literature reviews and just learn about all the different areas that are intersecting in that specific lab.

Sydney: And I feel like there are probably different skills needed, especially when the two subjects are very different from each other. Like, we think cognitive psychology and health psychology or food psychology— they can be interconnected in a very discernable way. So, if you’re interested in two different fields, make sure you have the skill set for each. Like, psychology uses SPSS or R code so make sure you have that skill set and whatever skills are needed for the other field.

Selena: The pandemic has presented a number of challenges for us all. How would you say the transition to remote work impacted your research?

Alejandra: I would say obviously it was a lot more challenging to find research assistant positions and I actually didn’t even join the dish lab until the pandemic. I think it was obviously more challenging, but at the same time you can still email professors and students that you’re interested in working with and I used that opportunity. I looked through the psychology faculty member list and I found Dr. Tomiyama. Like I said,  I remembered her from my “PSYCH150: Introduction to Health Psychology” class. I remember on the website at the time, it said that they weren’t recruiting research assistants and I was about to not email her but then I was like, “I don’t know… why not?” and she ended up recruiting me! So I think just taking your chances and trying to get as involved as you can in certain programs like Sydney is, is still possible while working remotely. I know the Underrepresented Graduate Students in Psychology program (UGSP) was really useful to me because they would send out resources and emails about labs that were recruiting or workshops they were holding, so I would attend those regularly during COVID.

Sydney: Actually my whole two years at UCLA have been remote, so I’ve only done research remotely. I would say doing it has been a give-and-take. There have definitely been challenges. I would say just being able to have those one-on-one meetings in person will always be different than having them online, so I think that was definitely a disadvantage of COVID. I think that something that is a benefit of having this online is that it’s easier, like Alejandra said, to connect to different people and attend different workshops. So I think the transition and my time being remote affects more so the environment of the lab, like the social aspect and the meetings. Hopefully, when we go back in person that’ll be different.

Selena: What advice would you give to remote students seeking a more hands-on research experience?

Sydney: I would say it’s really up to you. Every research experience is different and it really depends on how invested you are in your research lab and your research project. It’s very easy to join a research lab and slack off on your work or not be fully involved, like not attend the meetings or socials that labs hold. If you are actually passionate about what you’re doing and you want to be involved, I would say just take any chance you can get to talk to the graduate students in your lab and set up meetings with them and with your professor. It’s really just up to you how you want to make the most out of your experience. Even if it is remote, there are still ways to connect.

Alejandra: I totally agree with Syndey. Even though some people enjoy being in person more than being remote, if you’re interested in research, I think it’s better to join a lab remotely than not join one at all because it is a lot easier to get research assistant experience when you’re an undergraduate as opposed to when you’ve already graduated. Even if it’s unenjoyable to work remotely, maybe just stick it out for the next few months and hopefully, eventually, it will be in person. Right now we’re already hybrid so that’s a great start.

Selena: What are some of the biggest obstacles you encounter when conducting a study, and how do you go about overcoming these obstacles?

Alejandra: I can’t think of a specific example but in general, mistakes happen all the time in studies and you have to be aware that that’ll affect the data that you collect and analyze. I think that a way to overcome those obstacles is by understanding that mistakes are normal and just being honest with your PI about those mistakes so you can find a solution together in order to move forward. 

Sydney: Yeah I was just going to say the same thing that Alejandra said, just don’t be too hard on yourself. Research is a long process and sometimes there are things that make it tedious, like the coding aspect, and sometimes you just have to pull through and talk to others and you’ll be on the right track.

Selena: I know you touched on this a bit earlier, but in what ways has having a mentor like Dr. Tomiyama helped you along your journey in academia? 

Sydney: Yeah so I cannot even express— there are so many ways that having these one-on-one meetings and this personal mentorship has really helped me career-wise. What I really like about having Dr. Tomiyama as a mentor is that she really takes into account what you want to do and how you want to approach things in the future. For example, when I talked to her about doing a departmental honors thesis, she took the time to ask me whether I was actually considering grad school and we discussed the best ways to go about trying to get into grad school. I know that Dr. Tomiyama and Alejandra also hold weekly seminars and meetings to discuss CVs and things like that. Just being able to have that person who’s always there to help you, whether it’s for just a tiny question about a coding scheme or a big question about things you want to do in the future in terms of applying for different programs, is super helpful and can give you a sense of direction. This is important because I think especially as an undergraduate, there’s so much stuff going on. There are so many opportunities, but with that comes a lot of decision-making. Being able to have that person that you can confide in and talk to and receive advice from has just helped me immensely and I couldn’t have gotten it from anywhere else.

Alejandra: Yeah I totally agree with Sydney. I mean, the fact that Dr. Tomiyama is so receptive to students’ individual interests and is okay with helping you find other mentors or networking with other faculty members in the department, is amazing. For example, I recently figured out that I have an interest in trauma and health, and she’s been helping me network with Dr. Sumner who’s a trauma researcher in the department. I appreciate that she’s receptive in that way and not closed off to helping you explore other research areas in the department. As far as actual research goes, I would say the mentorship has helped with my critical thinking skills because she always asks me to expand on what I mean and wants me to be as detailed and as specific as possible even when it comes to writing, applying to internships or grants, and everything else of the sort.

Selena: Lastly, can you recall a specific moment you’ve had at DiSH lab that you remember vividly as a learning experience? 

Alejandra: This is a tough one, especially because Syndey and I have been mostly remote. One memory I have is from my PROPS celebration last year when I graduated. It was after we presented our research and all of our mentors came to talk about how we’ve grown during our last two quarters, and I remember Dr. Tomiyama was on vacation during that time and she still showed up, which I really appreciated! She was talking about how much I’ve improved my critical thinking skills and just how I’ve gained experience with the data set and learned to code more efficiently. At one point she even mentioned my posture and how I needed to improve that! She was just talking about how proud she was of me and how much she could tell that I’ve grown and I thought that was really valuable because you know, from my perspective I didn’t know how much I had grown. Sometimes you just have “impostor syndrome” and so it just felt like I didn’t really know what I was doing and it was reassuring to know that she noticed changes. 

Sydney: I think one moment that really stuck with me was before the school year started and before I had started my departmental honors thesis when Dr. Tomiyama and I had a meeting. It was at a point where I was deciding whether I should just conduct my departmental honors thesis or if I should also take on another project and run participants. When we were talking she genuinely asked me, “what do you want to do in the future? Is grad school something that you want to pursue, or is running participants and holding experiments something that you want to do?”. She talked to me about grad school and told me that publications and things like that are more so important. She mentioned that if grad school is the goal then that kind of next step is more in line with what I’d need to do. Having that personal guidance is something that I’ll take with me forever. I also feel comfortable knowing that I can always rely on her even in the future once I do decide what path I want to officially pursue. Yeah, just that kind of memory has really stuck with me. It was one of the first times I really saw that side of Dr. Tomiyama that I really appreciate.