Completing the Karen M. Gil Internship at CEED

By Clara Xu

My name is Clara Xu, and I’m an undergraduate student at UNC majoring in Psychology and Computer Science. This semester, I had the opportunity to join the Karen M. Gil Internship Program through the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. The Gil Internship helps UNC psychology and neuroscience students strengthen their knowledge and develop professional skills through placements at a variety of training sites. As part of the internship, I worked at CEED under the supervision of Dr. Jessica Baker.

This internship was a great opportunity as I have been interested in psychology ever since I took introductory psychology classes in high school. The excellent psychology program drew me to UNC. During my college years, I discovered that I am passionate about computer science and statistics as well—I love the analytical problem-solving mindset that is valued in these fields. When I took a quantitative psychology class, I realized that these passions can be combined! Computational methods have extensive application in psychology, and psychology inspires many computational algorithms. For example, the computer neural networks that are increasing in popularity are similar to biological neural networks.

Because I plan to study computational methods in psychology in the future, my goal for my CEED internship was to explore statistical approaches in eating disorder research. I was able to start my own independent research project and analyze an existing dataset. My project examined the impact of childhood trauma on the associations between eating disorder symptoms and reward and punishment sensitivities.

For this project, I recoded, scored, and built models to fit data. For each childhood trauma group (women who experienced childhood trauma compared to those who had not), I built models to test whether reward sensitivity and punishment sensitivity were related to binge eating and caloric restriction. Results showed that reward sensitivity and punishment sensitivity were only related to binge eating in women who experienced 2 or more childhood traumas. Restriction was only related to punishment sensitivity in women who experienced multiple childhood traumas. However, reward sensitivity was related to restriction in both groups—women who experienced multiple traumas and those who did not.

Completing this independent project has given me practical skills in statistical analysis. In class projects, professors usually give us ready-to-use data so the analysis is rather simple. Having to start from scratch with a dataset allowed me to apply and expand my classroom knowledge to actual research.

During my internship, I also gained insights into psychological research as a whole. I improved my academic writing with valuable feedback from Dr. Baker, and I learned the importance of planning ahead and working meticulously with datasets. In addition, I was exposed to countless statistical subtleties that researchers encounter in their daily work. One of my most memorable experiences during the internship was being able to join the CEED lab meetings and learn about cutting edge eating disorder research being conducted at CEED. For example, during one meeting I was introduced to a potential astrocyte pathway leading to eating disorders, and during another the effect of salad bars in schools on student nutrition intakes. These are very different projects, but they both contribute to the understanding of eating disorders. From this experience, I can see how CEED is a place where researchers with diverse interests can work together and advance knowledge about eating disorders!