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Goeun Park: Grateful for a curious, educational summer job

This is my last week at work and it has come to my attention that I never exactly clarified on what I’ve been doing for the past two months. To my defense, I wasn’t always sure about what I’ve been doing either.

This summer, I’ve been working as a research assistant in a cultural neuroscience lab at Pomona College. I can’t say much about it because it’s a super top secret (not really) and most of the concepts are still beyond my comprehension, but to put it simply, our lab focuses on a psychological phenomenon called priming and how it relates to culture.

Most people know what culture is. Priming, however, is not as well-known, and Wikipedia does a pretty messy job of explaining it. Basically, priming deals with nonconscious memory through semantic stimuli. Psychology Today offers this example to describe priming: “A person who sees the word ‘yellow’ will be slightly faster to recognize the word ‘banana’ because yellow and banana are closely associated in memory.”

It gets a little more complicated after that but that’s the gist. Now, how does that relate to culture? Well, how could it not? Behavioral neuroscience has a role in literally everything that pertains to human interaction. Behind every movement and thought lies action at a neural level. While sociologists would argue that unique cultures exist due to unique societal environments, neuroscientists would search for biological causes and responses. The debate between nature vs. nurture to explain human behavior is still up in the air but I believe that they are two sides of the same coin. I just happened to focus on the ‘nature’ aspect.

As an incoming sophomore, I expected to be doing grunt work most of the summer. That has definitely not been the case. Despite gaping holes in my scientific knowledge, I was welcomed and fully integrated into the lab from day one. The first few weeks, I sat in on meetings with my labmates and our supervising professors as they discussed experimental design.

I read everything from primary literature to user manuals and got an invaluable glimpse at the world of academia. Simply sitting in the room and listening in on professors as they reviewed and discussed yet-to-be-published, leading research papers was an amazing (if not mentally overwhelming) experience.

I learned skills that I would never have picked up in the classroom like programming actual psychology experiments and running human subjects under an EEG net and analyzing brain waves. Not only did I pick up techniques fitting for an aspiring scientist but I also picked up soft skills applicable outside of lab such as engaging in small talk and explaining complicated ideas to complete strangers.

Looking back, I’m grateful that my academic advisor offered me the position in his specific lab. Cultural neuroscience takes everything I like about the humanities and applies solid, scientific reasoning. This field of neuroscience also leans more towards psychology rather than biology, mirroring my own academic interests. While it’s too soon to say that this is something I would pursue in college and beyond, I have a good feeling about this.

Goeun Park graduated from Detroit Lakes High School and attends college in California.