From rabbits to humans: the evolution of the UAF psychology department

By Kelsey Gobroski
Sun Star Reporter

The psychology department plans to evolve by pursuing Ph.D accreditation and scrutinizing its undergraduate curriculum, but it is still grappling with its fledgling identity. The Gruening Building basement suites were much different ten years ago. The first floor alone has morphed drastically. What is now a video conferencing room once housed animals. Researchers quarantined and treated sick animals in what became the lunchroom. A graduate office once shelved all manner of medicines and treatments. Anita Hartmann used to work with rabbits here.

“Undergrad research opens doors … especially when they’re doing things hands-on with real world applications,” Hartmann said. Psychology undergraduate research of the ’90s centered on rabbits. The rabbits, two-pound Holland lops, taught Hartmann and her undergraduates about antioxidants, how nurture affects learning, and the negative side effects of the drink Kombucha. The research done on those rabbits proved valuable for the undergraduates – one student later entered a doctorate program at Virginia Tech with a full-ride scholarship.

The rabbit research has long since concluded, the rabbits all adopted out. The facilities weren’t up to code. Updating them would’ve cost millions of dollars, according to John Allen, professor and former director of the UAF psychology clinic.

“The curriculum no longer includes the undergraduate psychology laboratory experiences that it did when I came in 1987,” Hartmann said. Many of the laboratory courses were eliminated. This change affected students’ future options by focusing on “clinical programs and applied research,” she said.

The psychology department turned to therapy and applied research. Today, the university psychology department works toward accrediting its own doctorate program with the American Psychological Association (APA). The department also plans to alter the undergraduate program.

From neuroscience to therapy, Gruening’s basement psychology facilities have seen the department’s goals evolve over the years. The spaces Hartmann walked through as a researcher now house teaching assistants, graduate students and video conferencing. Meanwhile, the second floor transformed into the heart of the blossoming doctorate program: the Psychology Department Clinic.

To be eligible for APA accreditation, students getting their doctorate in clinical-community psychology need to have clinical training. Originally, the Student Health and Counseling Center would have filled that role, but it didn’t have room. The department scrambled to find an alternative, Allen said.

“We had to build a clinic out of nothing,” Allen said. The clinic spent its first year on the first floor, until the department renovated the second floor three years ago.

Artwork of Alaskan animals covers the walls of the clinic rooms and replaces windows in the basement space. There are six therapy rooms, a group space and testing cubicles.

The clinic is open to the community. Director Jason Whipple and his students don’t deal in prescriptions, and instead provide diagnoses and therapy sessions to students, families, couples and children. Today, they are actively seeing about 50 or 60 patients, Whipple said. The clinic has the same quality of care as the health center, just with student therapists, Whipple said.

The training allows graduate students the hands-on experience of conducting therapy and diagnosis without the more complicated aspects of professional psychology such as suicidal patients or court orders, Whipple said.

Despite the animal facilities shutting down, there are still opportunities for psychology undergraduates.

Undergraduate committee chairperson Brien Ashdown has led research teams and taught undergraduate courses for two years. During that time, “the numbers of undergraduates working closely with professors has exploded,” he said.

More than 250 students are majoring in psychology at UAF. The department is reviewing the major’s requirements. “Without getting into specifics, we have tried to revise our curriculum in such a way to allow us to be more flexible in the courses we offer,” Ashdown said.

The doctorate program will also evolve. Now that the clinic has produced graduates, the department can apply for accreditation. They plan to use the video conferencing room for therapy. Soon Whipple can research how much patients improved after visits, Allen said. Even undergraduates may find their place in the clinic alongside doctoral students. As the clinic grows, “there may be opportunities down the road for undergraduate research assistantships,” Allen said.

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