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Robert Vega, Director FAC 18 / 2304 Whitis Ave. Stop G6200 78712-1508 • 512-471-7900

Graduate Student Profiles - Psychology

Jamil Palacios Bhanji – Social Psychology
Connor P. Principe – Developmental Psychology
Patrick Quinn – Clinical Psychology
Dr. Julio C. Rojas –Neuroscience, The Institute for Neuroscience (May 2009)


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Neuroscience, The University of Texas at Austin (May 2009); Dissertation: “Strategies of neuroprotection in an in vivo model of retinal degeneration induced by mitochondrial dysfunction”

Undergraduate Degree: Medicine, Tecnologico de Monterrey - Monterrey, Mexico

When did you graduate and what are you doing now?
I graduated from the Ph.D. program in neuroscience in May 2009, after 5 years of work at Prof. Gonzalez-Lima’s lab. I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Psychology Department at UT Austin.

What was life like as a graduate student?
When you went to Disneyland, you got a ticket for the day that you could use to ride any rollercoaster that you wanted as many times as you wanted. But by the end of the day, you had to say goodbye and exit the park. Grad school is the same. You will have a number of years to get involved in as many activities as you want. By the end of it, it will depend on you whether you will take advantage of all the opportunities that you will have in front of you. The life of a graduate student in general is really privileged. You’re duties are to learn and generate knowledge in the context of the mission of your academic institution. Your schedule is pretty flexible so you have time to accommodate extra-academic activities if you want (e.g., student organizations, sports, informal classes, hobbies, parties). Working in neuroscience labs is fun. It is a very dynamic environment. You get to interact with a lot of people and faculty and sometimes get to know prominent scientists. You read a lot of science, you attend lectures and conferences, you get to teach in the classroom or demonstrated procedures in the lab, you get to write papers, and, if you want, you also get to write research proposals and learn the administrative nuts and bolts of how to run a lab. It all depends on your own drive.

What was a typical day as a grad student?
Your schedule is significantly affected by the stage in which you are in your training. In the first years, you usually take classes (9/week). Most of your off-class time is devoted to preparing presentations, tests and homework. You rotate through different labs each semester to get a sense of what people do and how they do it. By your second year you settle in a lab of your interest and start thinking about your own projects. At this stage you also worry about preparing a mock-research proposal and reviewing your lecture material of the last two years to present at your qualifying examination, which is designed to test whether you are capable of understanding general neuroscience concepts and design a project. In the following years you get involved 100% in research and your days (some times nights even on weekends and holydays) are spent running experiments, analyzing data and preparing your reports and manuscripts. In the last months you prepare your dissertation (i.e., a lot of writing) and your defense presentation. Writing a dissertation is something that should be taken very seriously, but by no means should intimidate you. The process of writing it is gradual and a trend towards short straightforward scholar texts is now in vogue.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The faculty at the Institute for Neuroscience at UT Austin INS is really good. They’re not only world-class experts in their fields, but the quality of mentoring that they provide ensures the best possible formative experience in neuroscience. The INS also guarantees full stipend for all their students for 5 years, and off course, it is located in Austin, TX, a great place to live!

Can you tell us a bit more about your research?
I want to find ways to prevent or treat neurodegenerative diseases. The title of my dissertation is “Strategies of neuroprotection in an in vivo model of retinal degeneration induced by mitochondrial dysfunction.” I contributed to the development of a model of retinal damage by treating rats with rotenone, a chemical that impairs mitochondrial function and that seems to have a role as an environmental neurotoxin. This model resembles toe mechanism and features of a rare disease that produces blindness in humans called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. The model provides a great context to test the principle that manipulations that act on the mitochondria, specifically on the respiratory chain, are effective at preventing neurodegeneration. We discovered that methylene blue and near-infrared light therapy, two interventions that boost the electron transport in mitochondria and also have antioxidant effects, are very effective at preventing blindness and retinal damage induced by rotenone in the rat. We believe these findings can be used as a basis to design effective treatments not only for Leber’s disease, but also for other neurodegenerative conditions characterized by mitochondrial failure such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
I wish I had the chance to get involved in basic research as an undergrad. That’s an opportunity that I didn’t have, unfortunately. I would encourage undergraduate students interested in pursuing graduate studies to volunteer at research labs as undergrads. Being in a lab at an early stage would have definitely increased my arsenal of research techniques and the length of my contacts list.

While a student, did you have TA, AI, GRA or GA responsibilities in your department?
I did do teaching and research assistantships. This is not a requirement for most INS students, but sometimes it is needed or encourage as a formative experience. As a TA, your role is to facilitate the teaching activities of the professor. You will attend all lectures, take notes and assist students during office hours. Besides that, the activities that you do depend on the teaching style of the professor and your own initiative. It can be as easy as taking scantron sheets to the evaluation center or as elaborate as lecturing and designing and grading tests. At INS, research assistants usually work in their own lab and most of the times in their own dissertation projects or help labmates running theirs. Being a TA or a GA can become complicated if you have not learned to prioritize your duties. It is really easy to get excited preparing a review session that is not really necessary. I strongly recommend that you get teaching experience through a TA position.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
To successfully complete graduate school you should be or learn to be a goal-oriented person. This is not a feature that is indispensable for an undergraduate student. In graduate school you are expected to perform with a certain degree of productivity, so it’s somewhat similar to having a job on top of school, but if you are happy and you enjoy what you do, you can be successful.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew then?
I wish I had the chance to do more research back then. If I could go back, I’d probably try to enroll in summer research programs or get a scholarship to visit NIH. Networking is crucial and it can lead you to incredible opportunities.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Find a good mentor. Mentor-student relationships are key for your successful graduate education. Not all students will do great with any advisor or vice versa. Talk to a lot of people and learn about their philosophy of work, their commitment to education, their style, and their character. Are they approachable? Do they have an ego? Are they reliable? Are they sane? Think if you see yourself working with that person for several years.
  2. Choose the right lab. The right lab is probably the one that pursues the same questions you are interested in, implementing excellent science in a formative and inclusive way. Are they asking the right questions? Are the techniques adequate? Do they have enough resources? How many grad students does the lab have? How many undergrads? How many postdocs? Are they independent or hand-tight for pursuing new ideas? What are the social dynamics within lab members? Is it hierarchically organized or is laid back? How many publications do they put out per year? In what type of journals do they publish? How many authors are there per publication? Are people happy? The more, the better, and more people involved and a sense of a humble approach to science are ideal for a training scientist.
  3. Plan to have a life outside school. Plan to go to the gym, paint or play your video games whenever you can. Plan to go to a lot of parties and social events within your academic community. Keep in touch with your family. You’ll need balance and it will be very easy to be absorbed by work. Don’t let it happen.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
Hispanics and African Americans make up nearly 25 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, in 2005, they comprised only 3.2 percent of funded principal investigators on NIH research project grants and 5.5 percent of research trainees supported by NIH training grants. This showed when I applied to grad school. I came with partial funding from Mexico and only UT offered me a spot in their neuroscience program. I feel lucky and grateful that it happened.

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in neuroscience to check out?
Visit the INS at UT Austin website.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I see myself consolidating a career as a physician-scientist, making breakthrough contributions to the healthcare of patients with neurodegenerative disorders through excellent clinical care and research.

Do you have a “grad school survival tip" you would like to share?
After completing your graduate training, you have a wide range of working opportunities. You can work in academia, industry, consulting firms or healthcare institutions. Most people complete at least 1 year of post-doctoral training. This period helps you to learn new techniques within your area of interest; you implement collaborations, and network for job opportunities. The post-doc experience has become almost mandatory to anyone interested in becoming a faculty in an academic institution. If you chose a career in academia, you need to become an expert at presenting your ideas in the form of research grant proposals. In academia, one way to measure your productivity is by the number of publications that you have per year, so the only way to keep publishing is by securing funding to keep on with your projects. Grant writing is a great part of what a senior scientist does. This is an extremely challenging and competitive activity. Anyhow, these are exciting times for research on the brain and behavior. There’s a bloom of technical development and more compelling questions will likely get answered in the near future. More government funding is being devoted to these areas of research and more enthusiastic and capable people will be needed. These are definitely good times for neuroscientists!

Download Dr. Rojas' Profile


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Developmental Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: Emotional Correlates and Consequences of Appearance-Based Stereotypes

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., Psychology/Honors, Seattle University – Seattle, WA

What is life like for a graduate student?
This varies on the person. Because there are no hard deadlines in developmental, you can work as much or as little as you choose. Personally, I chose to be employable and that means getting as much done as I possibly can (i.e., publish) while I met the requirements of my degree program. I have a wife and a 12 month old, but do not have a life outside of that.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
No two days are the same. Some days I can spend the whole day writing or doing statistical analyses on studies that I designed, other days I may not have to the time to do anything other than respond to week-old "urgent" emails from colleagues. In other words, it can go from intellectually invigorating to stroke-inducingly stressful.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
UT is a top program, so I am surrounded by and learn from the best scientists in their field.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
I study the emotional correlates and consequences of appearance-based stereotypes. I use a cognitive theory and physiological methods to investigate a social developmental issue.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
Yes and yes. If you've never done research, how do you know if you'll like it? Also, with competition for top schools at an all time high, you probably won't get in to your top choice without that experience. Be prepared to volunteer somewhere. Paid internships in psychology are practically non-existent. I worked for a foster care agency in Seattle, helping to design and analyze the effectiveness of foster care services on teenagers across the United States.

Where are you in the graduate school sequence?
I will be admitted to candidacy in Spring 2010. It is very nice to be able to focus on research and be done with classes and teaching.

Have you had TA, AI, GRA or GA responsibilities in your department?
I've held all of the above positions. The best is GRA because you should be researching anyway, so you may as well get paid for it. Teaching your own course (AIing) is exciting and rewarding, but takes a tremendous amount of preparation if you don't want to embarrass yourself. TAing should be avoided at all costs. Generally you are assigned to attend a class that you have taken before or don't care about and have to spend 10-15 hours a week grading papers. It's mind-numbingly awful.

Do you work in a lab? What is that like?
I work in Judith Langlois's social development lab at the Children's Research Laboratory. What is it like? Busy. I supervise several undergraduate volunteers and oversee between 3-6 studies at a given time.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
There are more similarities between high school and undergrad than undergrad and a PhD program. Getting a PhD is not like going to school, it's like going to work. Instead of making actual friends, you have work friends. It is far more personally engaging--you'll never take a course you don't care about again--but it's rarely "fun". Being an undergrad is fun.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. In science PhD programs the most important thing is your adviser. You are stuck with this person for 4-7 years, so if they are not helpful, not available, or just plain a jerk (and there are many jerks in top academic programs) you will hate your life. Meet your adviser before you accept a position in school. If you get the sense that you are not a good fit, run away. Sadly, I have friends who deeply regret their choice of grad school because of this. On the flip side, I would take a bullet for my adviser. Well, maybe a beanbag bullet.
  2. Do not go to grad school for the sake of going to grad school or to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. If you need extra time, join the work force and come back to grad school when you are sure (like I did). Go to grad school because you need a PhD to get a job as a research director, or assistant professor. If you get into grad school because you couldn't think of anything else to do and/or because you are smart enough to get in to a good program without much effort, you will hate your life for the next 4-7 years.
  3. Apply to at least 10 schools. Yes, this is expensive. But the economy collapsing means fewer open positions and much more competition. You should have at least 2 safety schools, but do not apply anywhere that you don't want to go. That's a waste of money. Also, do some research about your top choices' current students. What is the average GRE score and GPA of the students at your first choice? If you have a 550 verbal and a 3.2 GPA, you are not going to get into a top 25 program unless you have a personal connection with your adviser (like, she's your mom). Grad schools do not have geographic quotas like undergrad colleges. You aren't more likely to get into Harvard because you are from Hawai'i.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
Boston College

What is one an interesting website you would tell a friend interested in developmental psychology to check out?
The American Psychological Association should publish lists of graduate programs and the academic requirements for admission. Don't apply anywhere without knowing this.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Doing exactly what I'm doing now, only in a different city and getting paid better for it.

Do you have a “grad school survival tip” you would like to share?
Read "Getting What You Came For" by Robert L. Peters. If you still want to go to grad school after reading that, you will do fine. This book is available at the LACS Career Resource Library, FAC 18.


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Clinical Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin; Research Interest: Alcohol use and other risky behaviors primarily among college students

Undergraduate Degree: B.A., Psychology, Swarthmore College – Swarthmore, PA

What is grad school life like?
Work-life balance is a term you hear pretty often early in graduate school, and learning how to balance school work and research with time with friends (both of which are important!) is definitely a key to success. One thing I’m learning, though, is that clinical psychology students also need to learn how to distribute their time among courses, research, and clinical work. In a typical day, I will do some homework (usually reading or statistics problem sets), spend some time on my research (supervising undergraduate assistants, analyzing data, or writing up results), and prepare for my next session with a therapy client. All of these things are important, so learning how to manage your time is essential. I usually spend between 9 and 11 hours a day in the psychology building during the week, but I almost always bring some reading home with me at night as well.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The UT clinical psychology program has a lot of strengths—excellent, well-respected research mentors, diverse clinical training opportunities, brilliant fellow students—but my favorite aspect is that I get to study alcohol use every day.

Where are you in the PhD sequence?
I’m in my second year in graduate school. That means that, in addition to my research, I’m taking a full load of classes and beginning to see therapy clients. At UT, most students take classes for the first three or four years and then begin focusing more on research and clinical work. Right now, there’s a lot to do; second year can be tough! Even when school feels overwhelming (and it can sometimes), we students know that our current sacrifices will pay off in the long-run as we become better researchers and therapists. We can also look to more immediate goals, like finishing our first major research project at the end of our second year.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
My research examines alcohol use and other risky behaviors (e.g., illicit drug use, driving after drinking, unprotected sex), primarily among college students. I’m particularly interested in the ways that individual differences like personality traits interact with social influences to shape how these behaviors develop. For example, I’m currently working on a paper testing whether protective parental influences can delay alcohol use among adolescents who have traits that would otherwise put them at risk for heavy drinking.

Do you work in a lab? What is that like?
I work with Dr. Kim Fromme in the Studies on Alcohol, Health, and Risky Activities (SAHARA) lab. It’s a great place to work because we use a variety of different approaches to learning about drinking and related behaviors. As part of the lab, Dr. Fromme has a simulated bar, in which we can study drinkers in a naturalistic environment. We also have been following a cohort of UT undergraduates since they arrived in 2004, which has allowed us to examine how these behaviors change across college and into young adulthood.

Aside from the opportunity to be involved in diverse research methods, being in a lab also allows you to work together with other people who are interested in the same sorts of research questions.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
Right now I’m funded through a NIAAA training grant, so I don’t work as a TA or GRA (the usual sources of funding for clinical psychology students). One of the advantages of studying alcohol and addiction at UT is that there are great opportunities for research support. Being on the training grant means that I’m expected to produce more research, but it also gives me more time to do so.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
Learning to work independently is probably the biggest adjustment for most new graduate students. In a research-focused program like UT, graduate students are expected to develop and execute independent research projects, which means that some of the most important work you do as a graduate student is done on your own. There are some advantages to that independence, like not having to work on projects that don’t interest you. It does mean, though, that you will have to learn to be your own motivator and manager.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
Yes and yes! I worked as an undergraduate in HIV prevention research at the University of Pennsylvania, and then after I graduated I worked for the same project full-time for a year before moving to a different lab for two more years. Research experience is the most important thing you can do in preparing for graduate school, for two reasons. First, graduate school is long, and it is undeniably challenging. That means it’s extremely important for you to make sure you enjoy conducting research. Getting experience in research will help you determine whether it is something you’d want to do as a career, and it will also help refine your specific research interests. Second, from a pragmatic perspective, research experience is a great way to make your graduate school application more attractive. Acceptance into an elite clinical psychology program like UT is extremely competitive, so you will want to do everything you can to improve your chances.

If you wouldn’t have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
I also considered working with Michael Sayette at the University of Pittsburgh and Carl Lejuez at the University of Maryland.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
My goal is to find a position in academia where I can continue to research alcohol use and other risky behaviors.

Download Patrick's Profile


Graduate Program: Ph.D., Social Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin;Research Interest: Influence of emotions in decision-making and the brain systems that are involved in regulating that influence

Undergraduate Degree: M.A., Psychology, University of California at Davis; B.S., Symbolic Systems, Stanford University – Stanford, CA

What is grad school life like?
Running a research study requires a lot of time, so it feels like a very demanding job sometimes -- but it's the kind of job where I'm constantly learning new things that I'm genuinely excited about. Outside of the graduate program I have a wife and a 16-month old baby boy, so I've definitely honed my time management skills to get the most out of every minute I have.

What is a typical day in the life of a grad student?
Most days I am analyzing data or writing, so I like to get to the Psychology Department in the morning around 9am. I work in an office that I share with another student from a different lab. Some days I'll have a lab meeting, or TA responsibilities, or there will be a research talk that I'll want to hear -- it varies day to day.

What is the coolest thing about your graduate program?
The access to technology really drew me into the program. I just get really enthusiastic about tools that help you look inside the mind. In my studies I'm basically recording people's brains at work while they make the decisions I put in front of them.

Where are you in the PhD sequence?
I am at the point where I am planning my dissertation and writing up results of the studies that I have run up to this point. I've completed the required coursework so I'm totally focused on research now, which is great because I have so much to do.

Can you tell us a bit more about your current research interests?
I research the influence of emotions in decision-making and the brain systems that are involved in regulating that influence. For example, in a decision between eating a carrot or a cupcake, I study brain systems that calculate the expected pleasure of the cupcake versus the carrot, systems that calculate how each choice will impact long-term goals like fitness, and systems that weigh this information in a final decision. I use the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) facilities at the UT Imaging Research Center to look into people's brains while they make decisions.

Do you work in a lab? What is that like?
I work in the Self Regulation Lab directed by Dr. Jennifer Beer. I spend my time planning studies, collecting data at the Imaging Research Center, analyzing data, and finally writing papers about my research for publication in research journals. Most of the time I'm in front of a computer in the Psychology Department looking at data from a fMRI scan or writing up results so I really love it when I am able to go out the Imaging Research Center to collect data. The technology there is incredible.

Do you have teaching responsibilities in your department?
I currently have a TA and a GRA role. My GRA role is conducting my research and writing up each study. In my TA role I hold weekly office hours and manage class assignments and grading.

What would you consider to be the greatest difference from your time as an undergrad?
The greatest difference for me is the total focus in one area of study. As an undergrad I took classes in several very different departments. Now, I'm completely focused not just in a single department, but on a single research area within psychology. The demand for original ideas is also much greater in a grad program. As a grad student, you have to come up with your own original ideas and research questions. It's challenging but it also makes the work more enjoyable because you feel like you own it more.

Is there anything you know now that you wish you knew as an undergrad?
As an undergrad I didn't realize how willing most professors are to talk to students -- not just about class topics, but about research as well as science in general. If I had known this I would definitely gone to more office hours as an undergrad.

What are your top 3 tips for students interested in applying to a program like yours?

  1. Get as much research experience as you can by working as research assistant in a lab.
  2. Learn about new research in the field you are interested in and think about what kind of research you would like to do.
  3. Talk to graduate students in a department that you're interested in.

Did you work on a research project as an undergrad? If so, what was it? Would you recommend research for undergrads?
I first got involved in psychology research as an RA in a language production lab. Although I ended up in a different research area, I learned how psychology studies are run and it helped me find my research interests. I absolutely recommend research for undergrads who want to go to graduate school.

If you wouldn't have accepted the UT Austin offer, which school was your #2 choice?
If not for UT Austin, I would have continued studying at the University of California at Davis, which has an excellent program.

What is one fun or interesting website you would tell a friend interested in social psychology to check out?
Society for Personality and Social Psychology

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully, as a professor, running studies and teaching students.

Do you have a "grad school survival tip" you would like to share?
I can just say that although there's a lot of pressure to focus your research on a specific question while in grad school, there are still opportunities to get involved in related research. For example, my research on the control of emotion in decision-making has led me into research on drug addiction. I hope to expand on this research in the future.

Download Jamil's Profile

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