Two women standing in front of a podium with a computer on it. Behind them is a screen with a chart illustration on it.
As part of her research project under mentor Chelsea Williams, Ph.D. (right), Vanessa Olazabal (left) honed her presentation skills and traveled to Salt Lake City to present her findings at a conference. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU summer program gave psychology major Vanessa Olazabal a GREAT research subject: fellow Rams

She explored links among Latine students’ ethnic-racial identity, relationships, the pandemic and how alcohol use and anxiety were affected.

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About Dreamwork, Team Work: As part of Research Weeks 2023, this series showcases undergraduates and their faculty mentors as they talk about their research and what they've learned from each other along the way.

Senior Vanessa Olazabal’s goal of becoming a child psychologist gained momentum after she completed a research project with Chelsea Williams, Ph.D., director of the EMPOWER Youth Lab in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Psychology

As part of VCU GREAT - the Guided Research Experience and Applied Training Program - undergraduates work over the summer with faculty mentors conducting behavioral sciences research. Olazabal received training on the Spit for Science data set, and while she spent some time in program training and activities, she was mostly in the youth lab working with other students and three former undergraduate research assistants.

Williams and her Ph.D. student, Arlenis Santana, mentored the students. The entire team would meet to brainstorm research questions and ideas and then split off into three working-paper teams.

“I think this setup provided a really nice opportunity for students to conduct team science and work collaboratively,” Williams said.

Olazabal’s project focused on whether Latine college students’ ethnic-racial identity affirmation - their positive or negative feelings about their race/ethnicity - before the pandemic (in spring 2019) was associated with relationship quality with friends and romantic partners at the onset of the pandemic (spring 2020) and, in turn, anxiety symptoms and alcohol use (fall 2020). She analyzed data from Spit for Science, an initiative that emails all first-year VCU students at the start of the academic year and invites them to take a survey about their personality, behavior, experiences and more. Participants are asked to fill out follow-up surveys throughout their time at VCU, and in some cases to provide a DNA sample.

Olazabal’s findings indicated that Latine students who felt more positively about their ethnicity in spring 2019 had better relationship quality with a partner in spring 2020, which was associated with lower alcohol use and anxiety symptoms in fall 2020.

“We were focusing on how feeling good about yourself may better the relationship quality with friends and romantic partners, which translates to less anxiety and less alcohol use,” said Olazabal, who will begin a general psychology M.A. program this fall at Columbia University.

A woman from the best up smiling in front of a brown plaque with white test on it.
Vanessa Olazabal. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

This spring, Olazabal traveled to the Society for Research in Child Development conference in Salt Lake City, where findings of the research were presented via a research flash talk.

“The paper that Vanessa worked so hard on is now under review at a peer-reviewed journal,” Williams said. “We are hoping that this will lead to an acceptance and publication this year! She is a phenomenal student, and I have really enjoyed being a part of her journey. I am excited to see her continue shining throughout her career.”

Here, student and mentor share thoughts on what they learned working together.

Vanessa Olazabal

What attracted you to this project?

I thought Dr. Williams would be a good fit because of her study on childhood development. My career goal is to be a child psychologist. We got to meet through Zoom, and I enjoyed her personality and how engaged she was in her work.

What did you get out of the experience?

I was able to learn the preparation that goes into a paper that is currently being reviewed and will be published. It was helpful to see how that process goes. I worked on the poster and presented it. I learned that process, and I learned about presentation skills.

What’s one lesson you learned from Dr. Williams?

I enjoyed how encouraging she was to everyone working on a team, and I learned that working on a team is important. You could support one another. I felt comfortable with what we were working on. We all had different parts, and they all depended on each other part — it helped us move forward together.

Chelsea Williams

Why does this research matter?

We know that marginalized students have had more difficult experiences throughout the pandemic. We know that Latine individuals, in particular, also have the second-highest rate of alcohol usage and disproportionately have less access to mental health services, which is a large disparity. By conducting this research, we shed light on how individuals’ positive feelings about their ethnicity/race and their relationships are important factors that may be leveraged in interventions and programs with Latine college students to decrease their alcohol use and anxiety symptoms.

A woman from the chest up smiling in front of a white wall.
Chelsea Williams, Ph.D. (Allen Jones, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

How did Vanessa help advance the project?

We all brainstormed research questions, and then Vanessa picked the part of the paper she was going to focus on. Then, each week, my Ph.D. student, Arlenis Santana, and I provided training on how to write each aspect of a scientific paper. Vanessa spent the week applying her skills and furthering our manuscript. At the same time, we also provided training on how to put research into a poster presentation, and so each week, Vanessa also worked on a part of the poster. At the end of each week we discussed progress, questions and experiences at a lab meeting. By the end of the summer, Vanessa’s contributions led to a really solid draft of the paper and a final poster presentation that she gave at a poster symposium. I was really impressed by what she was able to accomplish in one summer. She worked so hard, learned a lot and gave a phenomenal presentation!

What’s one lesson you learned from Vanessa?

One lesson I learned from Vanessa is to never be afraid to ask questions. She was always engaged with the training we were providing, and anytime she had a thought or question, she brought it to the table for clarification. I found this to be super-helpful to other undergraduate research assistants in lab who had similar questions, and for myself in further thinking through the topics we were writing about as we were working on the paper.