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Undergrad’s Research Focus: Mental Illness and Crime

Elizabeth Burris is a junior majoring in Psychology who's working on research in the college's Forensic Psychology in the Public Interest Lab.

Research can deepen students’ passion for a subject, challenging them to search for answers to complex questions. It permits students to be creators of knowledge, and not simply recipients of past ideas. This Q&A explores the role research can play for Humanities and Social Sciences undergraduates.

Elizabeth Burris, a junior majoring in Psychology, has participated in research at NC State’s Forensic Psychology in the Public Interest Lab.

What sparked your interest in research?

I had Dr. Sarah Desmarais for Introduction to Psychology my freshman year when I was a Human Biology major. Dr. Desmarais sparked my interest in psychology and I decided to change my major to psychology, so from there it was a natural progression to ask to do research under her.

What research do you conduct?

Forensic Psychology is the intersection of community, counseling and health psychology as it relates to individuals involved in the criminal justice system. It seeks to apply psychological research and theory to assess and intervene with individuals in the criminal mental health system.  I primarily do research for an ongoing project that examines an intervention for justice involving adults with serious mental illnesses. I have been working in the Forensic Psychology in the Public Interest Lab for a little more than a year. I enter and clean data, ensuring there are no entry errors and double checking there is no missing data or incorrectly-coded data.

I have also done independent research projects. I have examined different variables within the data set to present at local psychology conferences. Last fall, as a sophomore, I presented a poster at the North Carolina Psychological Foundation’s 21st Annual Undergraduate Conference, and last spring, I presented at the Carolinas Psychology Conference. This fall, I am presenting a poster at the Society for Community Research and Action Southeast ECO Conference entitled, “Medication Adherence and Substance Use Predict 18-Month Recidivism among Mental Health Jail Diversion Clients.”

How does this research relate to your major, your career goals, and your personal interests?

This research relates directly: I am a psychology major and will be applying for graduate school in psychology in the next year. My career goals include doing research in some applied area of psychology, which is exactly what the Forensic Psychology in the Public Interest Lab does. I find the work in this lab interesting because of how it plays into America’s current mental health care crisis.  I think one of the most crucial things in the crisis is the continued stigma surrounding mental illness, especially in the workplace. Another critical issue is the government budget cuts that impact mental health care.

What have you learned?

This research has taught me to enter and clean large data sets, form hypotheses, use SPSS (statistical analysis software), do literature reviews, and conduct independent projects. In addition to these more general skills, I have learned a great deal on the topic of forensic psychology and how to work in an academic environment.  In my experience, working in an academic environment and writing academically differ from traditional workplaces and writing.  In both, finding evidence for your opinion is essential, and there is a fine balance of creativity and science in everything that takes place.

Describe some of the challenges you have faced.

Learning how to enter data was challenging, as were making an academic poster and preparing a presentation. My biggest challenge has been learning how to write academically in a research setting.

What about rewards?

The biggest reward is presenting at conferences because I am able to share what I have worked so hard on.

This Q & A was conducted by Dara Leeder, Director of Student Recruitment and Retention for NC State’s Humanities and Social Sciences.