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Last spring, Julie Phelan ’05 (Westfield, N.J.) conducted ambitious EXCEL Scholars research with Susan Basow, Dana Professor of Psychology, on how students’ evaluations of professors are influenced by the gender of the professor and the student. This year Phelan, a double major in psychology and art, is exploring topics in both of her majors in research for two yearlong independent honors research projects.

“For my psychology thesis, I’m investigating mental illness stigma,” says Phelan, whose work is guided by Basow. “I’m looking at factors that may contribute to social intolerance of mental illness.”

Phelan says participants in her research read a series of vignettes describing characters with either depression, dependence on alcohol, or “ordinary” problems, and then filled out a series of questionnaires that determined their tolerance for the character, the extent to which they perceived the character to be dangerous, and whether they believed the character had a mental illness.

“I measured several participant variables, including social dominance orientation, adherence to traditional gender roles, empathy, and familiarity with mental illness,” she says. “Not only am I interested in seeing how participant gender, character gender, and type of illness affect social tolerance, I am also exploring which of the other dependent variables, such as perceived dangerousness or adherence to traditional gender roles, may predict a participant’s tolerance for mental illness.”

“In addition to her work with me on my research, Julie has developed a complete research project on her own as an honors thesis,” notes Basow. “Rather than examining one or two factors, as most undergraduate honors students do, Julie decided to examine several at once. I have no doubt that she will do an outstanding job.”

Basow’s clinical psychology and gender expertise has been covered by television and radio stations, magazines, and newspapers, including the BBC, CBS, CNN, and Canadian CityTV. A widely published leader in her field, Basow is author of Gender Stereotypes: Traditions and Alternatives, printed in three editions, including a Chinese translation. She also has shared her knowledge through many presentations at professional conferences and as a consultant and expert witness. She is consulting editor for Psychology of Women Quarterly and Sex Roles, the top two journals covering the psychology of gender, and a licensed psychologist.

Basow helped found the Women’s studies program at Lafayette and has a particular interest in how social norms affect women’s feelings about themselves and their body.

Phelan is exploring the similarities between written and spoken language and artistic expression in research for her art thesis, guided by Ed Kerns, Eugene H. Clapp II Professor of Art.

An internationally known abstract painter, Kerns has mounted more than 30 one-person shows and participated in more than 150 group exhibitions in the United States, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Mexico. His work is in numerous public and corporate collections and has been reviewed in many journals and magazines.

“During high school as well as the beginning of my time here at Lafayette, I was mostly a representational painter,” Phelan says. “Through my immersion in both the art history and studio art courses, as well as my studies in psychology, I became increasingly intrigued by abstract and non-representational art. In particular, through my painting last summer, my discussions with Professor Kerns, and readings on the subject, I started to explore the influence of systems in painting.”

Phelan explains that a language is composed of smaller components—phonemes—that combine to form meaning according to its rules, or system.

“I am exploring systemic painting and how the underlying system of a painting informs the use of line and color to create a meaningful composition,” she says. “In addition, I plan to investigate the importance of the interrelationships among symbols and between the symbol and the system and how this influences the painting as a whole.”

Phelan says both research projects are giving her the opportunity to become better acquainted with conducing independent research and to begin to pursue her own research interests.

“She is a leader in the honors group,” Kerns says. “She’s very well read and incredibly devoted.”

The art research allows Phean to explore a subject she loves deeply.

“I really enjoy painting,” she says. “It is really important to me that I continue to creatively express myself through painting. I’m excited about every aspect of my thesis — reading books and essays on abstract art theory, discussing my ideas and my paintings with my professors and peers, and most importantly, spending time in front of the canvas.”

Phelan says both of her mentors are caring and highly qualified.

“Dr. Basow is interested in my research, my studies, and my future,” she says. “She has been and continues to be invaluable as an adviser as she aids me with my thesis and in the graduate school process.”

Phelan adds that she’s “very lucky” to be working with Kerns.

“He takes an active interest in my paintings and challenges me to do my best work,” she says. “Plus, I really enjoy talking with him both about paintings and in general.

“Lafayette has been a great environment for both theses,” Phelan adds. “I feel that I’ve had many more opportunities here than I would have had at a larger school. For my art thesis, I am able to have a continuous dialogue with many of the professors at the Williams Visual Arts building about my paintings, which has been invaluable in helping me grow as a painter. In addition, through applying for graduate school in psychology I have found how important it is to have research experience. Lafayette has provided me with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience both through EXCEL and my thesis. I think Lafayette has great programs in both the visual arts and psychology.”

She has been a teacher’s assistant and a psychology lab assistant for Basow and was on the executive board of the Arts Society. She competes on the club field hockey team.

She is a graduate of Westfield High School.

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 last year’s annual conference.

Categorized in: Academic News