By Ruihan Wu
In the spring term of the second year of my undergraduate degree, I applied to the Junior Research Associate (JRA) scheme, with Nicola Yuill of the Children and Technology Lab (insert link) as my supervisor. This scheme, funded by the doctoral school in the University with support from alumni donations, provides second years with the opportunity to get a taste of life as a researcher, by working on research projects developed in tandem with leading academics.
The activities of doing background research, forming hypotheses, analysing data, interpreting results, etc. had really fascinated me during the two modules of research skills I had already done. I was very eager for an opportunity to work in a research atmosphere and build on my academic portfolio. And also, to have it funded was the icing on the cake. These were the reasons I applied for the JRA scheme when I read about it at the end of my first year. Although the application is rather competitive my interest in psychology research drove me to give it a try.
I knew Nicola and her ChatLab from a first year lecture. After looking at her lab website, I was really interested in autistic spectrum conditions (ASCs) and decided to do my project in this area. Before applying, I emailed and went to see her with my initial project idea. Fortunately, she was interested in my idea and helped me adjust the research proposal and submit it for ethical review.
Prior research of alphabetic writing systems has demonstrated that information up to 14 or 15 characters to the right and 3 or 4 characters to the left of fixation is used during reading (Fig. 1). This region of effective vision is refer to as the perceptual span from which readers obtain useful information.
My JRA project investigated whether perceptual span, measured by eye movements, could explain some of the difficulties in reading comprehension reported by children with ASC. This meant getting children to read in front of an eye-tracker that takes a film of eye movements superimposed onto text on the screen. This was fascinating to watch, both for me and for the participants in the study. I was able to apply my previous research experience in eye tracking to this project but also discovered how research is so often a team effort: we could not have done the work without the eye tracking expertise.
Previous research shows that skilled readers usually have a larger perceptual span than less skilled readers. Children with ASC experience unique challenges with reading comprehension, but some of them have some superior perceptual skills. Thus, we thought that typically-developing children might show larger perceptual spans than children with ASC.
Understanding more about how eyes scan the page during reading will help us understand more about the role of eye movements in reading comprehension and may also help designing interventions to improve reading.
Thanks to this JRA opportunity, I learned a lot about a new topic working with Nicola and her team. Moreover, the JRA help me to improve my research skills outside term time and beyond the taught modules. I have now run my own research study, learned new methodological and analytic techniques, and spent time with ASC children and their parents, which was new. It has been a challenging but rewarding learning curve. I really have enjoyed my JRA project and would like to pursue my postgraduate study in this field.
I would like to thank Nicola for her unwavering guidance. She taught me how to work and research independently. This ability is essential for one who wants to work in academia, for it helps to develop research capabilities, step by step, from conceiving a research proposal to carrying it out and then to presenting it. I am also grateful to Dr Sam Hutton for sharing his eye-tracking expertise, constructing the software program to run the study, and contributing so much to the analysis and interpretation of data, and to Dr Graham Hole for providing lab facilities. I am also grateful for the support of Chris Girvan, a postgraduate student who acted as my mentor. He had completed a JRA himself, so understood the process well, and is now doing a PhD with Nicola as a direct result of his JRA research. I also had the chance to attend and present my work at ChaTLab meetings, benefitting from the advice and experience of a range of researchers in the field. I really do recommend this opportunity to everyone who is interested in research.
Ruihan Wu is currently studying her final year.