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Psychology major Michael Tuller (Jamestown, N.Y.) has played a key role over the past year in a professor’s research on perception and is using the experience to prepare for his own independent research in the fall.

He began working with Jeannine Pinto, assistant professor of psychology, as an EXCEL Scholar last summer. Now Tuller will combine the knowledge gained through this research, which he is continuing this summer, in a yearlong honors project next school year that, if successfully written and defended, would earn him honors in psychology upon graduation.

Tuller has learned through the project that what people see and what they think they see isn’t always the same.

After reading several different studies about the perception of movement, he videotaped interactions between people last summer and prepared a tape that was shown to research subjects this past fall.

Tuller says his tape, which was similar to ones Pinto made for two previous studies, was designed to determine whether viewers pay attention only to things that are likely to change or, more specifically, to unexpected changes in people’s interactions with each other.

“We were able to test subjects using the movie stimulus that I worked on last summer and into the fall,” he says. “We saw some interesting results on people’s ability to detect change in the scenes created.”

Pinto says Tuller worked hard to master the skills needed to make a video, including learning complicated editing techniques.

“Mike did a phenomenal job,” she says. “He was undaunted by unfamiliar technology, he understands the issues, and he immersed himself in cutting-edge research.”

The research is based partly on a study conducted by two Cornell University graduate students, one of whom posed as a prospective student asking directions. Each time the student began speaking to someone on campus, two other students would pass between the two parties carrying a large piece of plywood. The “prospective student” would quickly switch places with one of the plywood carriers.

In many cases, Pinto says, the person giving directions did not notice that his or her conversation partner was a different person, even though one student was slightly overweight and balding and the other was thin with a full head of hair.

“Students were more likely to pick up on it, but faculty had trouble,” she says.

When the Cornell students posed as construction workers instead of students, switching in the same fashion, fellow students were less likely to notice the change.

Pinto presented the data at a Vision Sciences Society conference this spring in Sarasota, Fla., while Tuller was studying abroad in Maastricht, Netherlands.

“The conference helped us see some possible [problems with] the stimuli and provided insight into how to fix the problems,” Tuller says. He adds that the pair will likely attend the conference next year.

Tuller helped Pinto prepare an article that she is nearly ready to submit to an academic journal with another professor, he says.

“I’m going to make the needed adjustments to the stimuli,” Tuller says of his EXCEL work this summer. “I’m also going to find and go over the background literature that might eventually be used in an article.”

“Creating a study is a really interesting thing,” he adds. “It gives me a hands-on understanding of the field.”

In Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

Although his upcoming thesis isn’t fully developed, Tuller says he will likely look at “the effect of amygdala arousal on individuals suffering from a clinical condition — probably either depression or anxiety — on their ability to detect changes in a complex scene.” The amygdala is a part of the brain responsible for perception, among other functions.

He will further develop the honors thesis upon completion of his EXCEL research this summer.

“This is an extension of the work I have been doing with Professor Pinto into the clinical aspects of psychology that I am interested in,” says Tuller, noting that he has learned much through his work with Pinto.

“She gives me a lot of immediate feedback and she’s always willing to discuss her work and gear it to the things I’m interested in,” he says, adding that his other professors have been easy to approach as well. “They’re all really willing to help.”

“I think Lafayette provides unbelievable opportunities,” Tuller says, pointing out that small class sizes and a small campus give students the opportunity to pursue research that wouldn’t be possible at a larger school with graduate students.

A graduate of Jamestown High School, Tuller is a member of Kappa Delta Rho fraternity and is serving an internship with Turning Point in the Lehigh Valley, an agency that assists victims of abuse.

As a national leader in undergraduate research, Lafayette sends one of the largest contingents to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research each year. Forty-two students were accepted to present their work at the last annual conference in April.

Categorized in: Academic News