Graduate students help undergraduates thrive at Human Ecology

Vital Pillars

Graduate students are skilled partners in carrying out research, interpreting data, leading labs, developing new ideas and assisting in teaching – all enriching the undergraduate experience. They help create and maintain much of the innovative environment that makes Cornell and the College of Human Ecology an ideal place for undergraduates to thrive.

Julia Nolte entered Cornell in 2017 to obtain a Ph.D. in developmental psychology. Her research interests span risk perception, decision making, lifespan development and health. She is currently researching tailoring health and risk information to the processing preferences of different age and patient groups. This work has earned her the 2017 Margaret Holmes-Rovner Award for Decision Psychology and Shared Decision Making.

Nolte said that a role she has seen graduate students play as lab leaders is that they often recruit undergraduates into the lab. From there, the interaction is very hands on – helping drive forward research and providing undergraduates with their first taste of academic studies within higher education.

“I have worked with Professor Valerie Reyna as a team leader in her lab for two years, the Health and Decision Making Team. I had my own team of undergrads – 10 to 15 depending on the semester – who I worked with very closely,” she said. “I now work with Professor Corinna Löckenhoff, and the team I work with now focuses on the specific project I’m currently pursuing.”

According to Nolte, the undergraduates in the two labs were interested in health and decision-making research and are hoping to go onto grad schools around psychology or health care. Within these teams, Nolte, similar to other graduate students leading labs across the College and University, would meet with students every week, assign readings she believed was important for students and their understanding of the work the lab was doing, and organize discussions around both.

“When I think about my own role and other grad student’s roles, they often teach research skills that you can’t learn about in a class,” Nolte said. “It’s not a standard setting, so undergraduate students learn all of these skills that cannot be learned from a textbook, and we cover something that cannot be covered by any other pillars in the system.”

This can include the intricate aspects of interpreting data to developing and running a study. Further, Nolte and fellow graduate students help advise and guide undergraduates through aspects of their degree, including grant proposals and honor theses that play a capstone role in an undergraduate’s young academic career.

Students undertaking an honors thesis usually have a graduate student assigned to them and interact very closely to work out the focus of the thesis, the design and so on. According to Nolte, she most recently supported two students in developing grant proposals to fund their thesis or summer project. Close one-on-one mentorship complemented and added to the feedback students received from their professor, and included Nolte helping fine tune the defense of their research.

For Nolte, the evolution of these undergrads within academia is a key example of the impact graduate students have as a pillar of a program, college or university as a whole.

“I’ve seen people come in not having any experience, and they get taught about stats and certain programs used to run studies and now they are Ph.D. students,” Nolte said. “I’ve seen undergrads be [authors] on papers and present in conferences. It’s really amazing to think that they come in to the lab, say in their junior year, and then by the end of their college experience, they are an author on a paper. I think from a very short time, they benefit so much from their close relationship with graduate students.”

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Increasing graduate fellowship funding is one of Human Ecology’s top priorities because of its importance to the college’s continued success. For more information on how you can show your support through giving, contact Kathleen Johnston at kea29@cornell.edu.