Psychology student wins research award


By: Trudy Horsting
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: JMU student presents research

Not every undergraduate can say they’ve presented their research at an international professional conference. But senior psychology major Amanda Powell not only attended the Society for Police & Criminal Psychology conference in September, she walked away with the Michael Serafino award for best undergraduate poster.

Powell’s project, “Influences on Juror Sentencing Decisions”, was sparked by psychology professor Kethera Fogler’s idea to investigate the language used in capital murder trials and its effect on a juror’s decision. Fogler explains, “There’s something about the language that the prosecutor uses that may predict whether the jury would give someone death versus life in prison without the possibility of parole.” Fogler’s honors student, Megan Parker, was using this research to complete her senior thesis and Powell was brought on as an assistant for the project. Their results were surprising compared to what the previous research on mock jurors predicted. But Powell thought, maybe the way a mock juror processes information and comes to a verdict is different because they’re not actually determining if a person should get the death penalty. That’s when she decided to begin her own investigation using mock jurors. What she found was harmonious with the body of research that had been done before, but was not consistent with what her study with Parker indicated. Fogler saw this as an intriguing extension to the original project, and encouraged Powell to find a venue to showcase her findings.

In September 2017, Powell accompanied another member of the research team, JoAnne Brewster, to the annual meeting of the Society for Police & Criminal Psychology in San Diego to present her study. There, she interacted with a multitude of professionals including professors, clinicians, and researchers. Powell says, “It was an eye opening experience to be among other researchers, to see what other people were finding, and to have opportunities for discussion and collaboration.” Her research fit perfectly with the dynamics of the conference and she was able converse with attendees who had completed similar studies. Powell’s project was assessed not only on its content, but on how well she was able to articulate her findings. Powell reflects, “I had a script that I ran through of what I was going to say and how I was going to say it and studying that intensively reduced my cognitive load so I was able to answer questions on my feet and inject more of my personality into what I was saying.” She describes the experience as intense, but rewarding and fun. 

Although the projects from graduate and undergraduate students are judged separately at this conference, Powell’s presentation scores fell in the same range as the graduate participants. She says it’s humbling and exciting to have been recognized for something into which she poured so much time. That said, she hasn’t taken much of a break to reflect, as she’s continuing research on the project this semester and simultaneously applying to graduate school.

Powell’s grateful to have had this opportunity, and to have had the guidance and support from Brewster and Fogler along the way. However, despite her professors’ involvement, Powell ultimately presented her findings on her own. Fogler testifies to her poise and self-confidence explaining, “Being able to describe different theories and frameworks on your own to experts in the field is huge for professional development.”

Having experienced this type of environment in her undergraduate years is sure to give Powell a leg up as she moves on to graduate school. Powell says, “Post-graduation I hope to get my Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience and I really want to study neurodegenerative diseases. Because I want to go into research, I’m expecting to be at many conferences for the rest of my life and this was more of a hands-on, practicum experience than I could have ever received in a classroom.” She affirms, “The trip to San Diego was so beneficial because now I know what to expect at professional conferences, I have the experience, and I know I can hold my own.” 

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Published: Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, December 9, 2020

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