James Madison University

Student Awarded Grant for Psychology Research

By: Daniel Vieth
Posted: May 7, 2015

Universities encourage scholarship in all fields, however many campuses stress faculty and graduate level research over undergraduate scholarship. In contrast, JMU encourages all students to create and publish research. One great example of this commitment is the work of senior psychology major Kerry Gaffney (‘15) and her advisor Dr. Melanie Shoup-Knox, who were recently awarded a grant from the national Psi Chi psychology honor society to pursue their research. This project, which aims to help answer why vertebrates yawn, is entitled ‘The Effect of Preoptic Anterior Hypothalamus (POAH) Temperature Manipulation on Yawning.’

PHOTO: Kerry Gaffney

Originally a biology student, Gaffney is fascinated by the connection between neuroscience and neuropsychology. “Biology and neuroscience look at specific sections and tissues of the brain to understand their molecular basis, while psychology can take those biological findings and apply them to understanding behaviors like yawning,” she explained. Gaffney is also president of the local Psi Chi chapter, which strives to provide professional development opportunities and guidance to its members. “That parallels the Psi Chi mission of the national chapter,” Gaffney continued. “They do research and travel grants, and want to see people apply the psychology they learn in the classroom to their personal lives.”

Gaffney began this current research project after being inspired by the work of Shoup-Knox, a new psychology faculty member who completed her dissertation on the connection between yawning and brain temperature. “Gaffney kind of fell into my lap because she was recommended to me by a previous faculty member, Dr. Catherine Franssen, who contacted me over the summer and said Kerry was a really great student who would be worthwhile to have in my lab,” said Shoup-Knox. “It meant a lot getting that recommendation, and having a student that’s so motivated is awesome.” 

The theory explaining why we yawn is based on the work of Gallup and Gallup (2007), who first explored the idea of yawning as a thermoregulatory mechanism to cool our brains. “People originally thought that we yawned because we were sleepy, but that’s not really a cause and effect relationship,” said Gaffney. As the two explained, while yawns do occur when people are tired, brain temperatures are also highest at the end of day. “We also think yawning is contagious, or a social signal, but that can’t account for why almost every vertebrate species yawns,” added Shoup-Knox. “This research is looking for the primary function of yawning from an evolutionary standpoint.” 

To test this hypothesis, Gaffney and Shoup-Knox will be working with biology professor Dr. Justin Brown, who has conducted similar research in the past. “When I got here I found out that Dr. Brown already studied brain temperature in the preoptic anterior hypothalamus,” said Shoup-Knox. “It was so serendipitous.” In essence, the researchers will be using water profusion to controllably alter brain temperature. “We’re going to use this method to test our hypothesis,” explained Gaffney. “If we increase and decrease brain temperature, will there be more or less yawns?”

To help provide the funds needed for this project to work, Gaffney applied for a number of grants, including the national Psi Chi grant. “I had never written a grant proposal before, and I only thought I would be awarded smaller local ones,” said Gaffney. “The national grant proposal was more like a learning experience for me to practice, but I really wanted them to see what I wanted to accomplish.” Though Gaffney didn’t think she would get the grant, the nation Psi Chi organization awarded her $1,474 toward her research. “I was so shocked, I’m still excited that I can do this and do it really well,” Gaffney exclaimed. 

With these funds, Gaffney and Shoup-Knox will be able to purchase highly reliable testing equipment, such as a water bath to keep temperatures steady and more precise testing tubes, have a larger sample size to increase validity of her findings, and have backups when parts break, . “With this grant, instead of jerry rigging the equipment together we can do something very well thought out and planned,” Gaffney continued. “We won’t be limited in the amount of materials we can buy, so we can better show what’s happening in the research.”

“After graduating in May, I’ll be staying around for the summer to devote all of my time to this project,” Gaffney explained. “If it’s going to be done, I want it done in the best way possible, and I’m really excited to put my all into this. It’s going to be very interesting to see what the data says!” Gaffney looks forward to the chance to apply her knowledge at an internship next year, combining her love of psychology and biology, and eventually wants to attend medical school.