Research on Light Therapy and Military Personnel Leads to Capitol Hill Invitation

OGDEN, Utah – For the third year in a row, an undergraduate researcher at Weber State University will represent the state of Utah on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as part of the prestigious Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill event.

Senior Kristena Kons, who is graduating this May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, will be presenting her research on light therapy and its effectiveness in helping military shift workers reduce fatigue, which can help decrease errors made on the job. Her research was one of less than 80 projects selected from more than 390 submissions nationwide.

Kons, along with eight other undergraduate students, conducted research last summer through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant WSU received. The grant was part of NSF’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates, an outreach program designed to provide summer research opportunities for college students across the country.

Kons’ work focused on whether light therapy can affect a person’s secretion of melatonin, a hormone that helps people sleep. Drawing on external cues such as daylight, the body typically begins producing melatonin every night around 9 p.m., and stops secreting the hormone each morning, Kons said.

Shift work, in which work schedules constantly fluctuate between day and swing shifts, disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythms—behavioral and physiological functions associated with the earth’s 24-hour rotation.

As part of her research, Kons collected data on military personnel at Hill Air Force Base twice a week for six weeks last summer. She met with 13 military air traffic and weapons controllers working rapidly rotating shift-work schedules. Each participant was exposed to light therapy at the beginning of his or her morning/day shift and again at the end of his or her swing shift.

Fatigue measurements were taken before and after the administration of light treatment.
Kons used salivary melatonin samples and a computerized cognitive task developed by the military (SynWin) to measure physiological and cognitive fatigue. Her research found that light therapy significantly suppressed melatonin levels during swing shifts, delaying individuals’ melatonin circadian rhythms. The findings suggest that using portable light therapy devices during swing and night shifts in military settings would decrease fatigue-related errors among military personnel.

Associate psychology professor Lauren Fowler, who mentored Kons on the project, said this research is just one example of collaborations between WSU and Hill Air Force Base that have been facilitated by NSF-REU during the past few years.

“We’ve had a great response from various squadrons on the base that were interested in having our students study the effects of fatigue on their specific roles,” said Fowler. “It’s been a great partnership and one we hope to continue in an effort to help the base decrease the effects of fatigue on performance.”

Fowler said future research also would work to develop fatigue countermeasures tailored to specific roles or groups on the base.

National attention is nothing new for Kons. Last year she received the Chapter President of the Year 2005-06 award from Psi Chi, the national honor society in Psychology, for her leadership with WSU’s Psi Chi chapter. As part of the honor, Kons was invited to make a presentation at the American Psychology Association national convention in New Orleans.

Kons said sharing her research with lawmakers on Capitol Hill feels a bit “surreal,” but she’s excited about the opportunity. She intends to publish her research findings in the fall and apply to graduate school. Ultimately, she plans to earn a Ph.D. in industrial organization psychology and would like to consult and work with companies to help them solve personnel issues.

Kons joins Kalista Francom (2006) and Eric Gabrielsen (2005) on the list of WSU students who have been invited to present their research at Posters on the Hill.

The annual Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill event, scheduled for April 25, is sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research. The event provides a way to thank lawmakers for their support of federally funded scientific research and to demonstrate the results of that research at colleges and universities across the country.

Visit weber.edu/wsutoday for more news about Weber State University.
Contact:

Kristena Kons, psychology major

(801) 791-8496 · kristenakons@hotmail.com

 

Lauren Fowler, associate psychology professor

(801) 626-7620 · lfowler@weber.edu
Author:
John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
(801) 626-7212 • jkowalewski@weber.edu