OGDEN, Utah – Ten college students from across the nation are spending their summer vacation at Weber State University, conducting research on the role shift work plays in contributing to fatigue among military and law enforcement personnel.
Associate psychology professor Lauren Fowler and a group of her WSU faculty colleagues are serving as mentors for the student researchers. Fowler's research has included extensive work with the United States Air Force, studying circadian rhythms (the body's daily cycles of eating, sleeping and other functions) in military personnel.
Funding for the 10-week program, hosted at WSU, is provided through a grant
from the National Science Foundation. The two-year grant provides $78,883 each summer, to cover research costs and provide a small stipend to the researchers. While the grant targets women and minorities underrepresented in the sciences, Fowler said it was just chance that resulted in all 10 participants being women.
"This is really an incredible opportunity," said Maria Pacella, a psychology major at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Penn. Like many of her peers in the program, Pacella views this as a rare chance to gain experience as an undergraduate that will open doors to graduate schools.
Pacella and Raelynn Wheeler, a senior at Washington State University, will be working with air traffic controllers at Hill Air Force Base to evaluate how shift work affects their cognitive and individual performances. Wheeler has worked on studies at Washington State that examined group communication, but her research this summer will look at how fatigue affects team communication, an area of research that is virtually untapped.
Another area with a lack of existing research, the effect fatigue has on parents with careers in law enforcement, appealed to Lena McCamish. A senior psychology major at the University of South Florida, McCamish is working with Weber and Davis County Sheriff's office personnel to explore that issue further. Originally from Maine, she's the daughter of a police officer and has several family members working in law enforcement.
Unlike research assignments in the classroom, which Fowler says may be "canned" or structured to have a predictable outcome, the students' research into fatigue poses many challenges with unknown outcomes. Pacella and Wheeler have barely begun their four weeks of field study and already have had to change the days and frequency of when they'll collect data to work around their subjects' schedules. Despite the glitches, the students and faculty have been impressed by the willingness of military and law enforcement personnel to collaborate on this project.
"The supervisors we've met with really want to learn what they could do better to help their employees," Fowler said. "The military and law enforcement fields are ideal for this kind of research because they offer very predictable, structured shift work."
Members of Hill Air Force Base's Range Control Squadron have enthusiastically volunteered to participate in the study. Weber and Davis Sheriff's Office have been equally accommodating with the student researchers.
In addition to conducting research, the students will learn about ethical issues related to conducting and reporting research, and take field trips to gain more knowledge about issues related to fatigue in the military and law enforcement. Shortly after arriving at WSU, the students flew to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio to receive an intensive, crash course on circadian rhythms and shift work. Fowler, who serves as the principal investigator for the NSF-funded research, has worked closely with the Air Force's Warfighter Countermeasures Branch at Brooks AFB while conducting her circadian rhythm research.
The researchers will share their findings at a symposium in early August before returning home.
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