The Childish Side of Serious Scientific Inquiry

Diana Funez

Student Profile: Marianne Dolan, AB’19 (Psychology, expected)

When rising third year Marianne Dolan first arrived at the University, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she says, “but I had so many interests.”


Two years later, Dolan works in two developmental psychology research labs on campus that focus on children’s social understanding. Her work in cross-cultural data coding was funded by the University of Chicago’s College Research Fellows Program, which sponsors research assistants’ work with University faculty mentors, and she looks forward to her future within Psychology.


Dolan found that her interest in scientific inquiry was essential when designing psychology experiments. In two courses for her major—Biological Psychology (PSYC 20300) with Assistant Professors Greg Norman and Sarah London of the Department of Psychology, and Cognitive Psychology (PSYC 20400) with Assistant Professor of Psychology Marc G. Berman—Dolan learned how to use both qualitative and quantitative measurements of behavior to answer questions about the way that people think. “Well-designed psychology experiments have to stand up to the test of people being skeptical,” she says. “It’s intrinsically scientific in the way that we go about proving theories false.”


When Dolan wanted to apply the methodology she learned in class to a real lab setting, she found an opportunity in the Infant Learning and Development Lab led by Amanda Woodward, the William S. Gray Professor of Psychology and Interim Dean of the Division of the Social Sciences. In studying the infants’ behavior, this lab uses such quantitative measures as an electroencephalogram (EEG) machine and eye tracker data. Dolan helps investigate how children in different cultures learn language either through their own observation or from adults directly explaining information. Part of her work involves close attention to small behaviors of children in recorded interactions. “We look at cross-cultural learning differences and word and action learning,” she says. The experiments, she explains, look at theory of mind. “It is essentially one’s ability to understand motives in others and understand their actions as goal-oriented.”


Looking for even more lab experience, Dolan reached out this summer to the Developmental Investigations of Behavior and Strategy (DIBS) Lab led by Dr. Alex Shaw, Assistant Professor in Psychology. DIBS studies how children understand reputation, and measures their behavior and thoughts on fairness, friendship, and intellectual property. Dolan interviews children from ages six to eight with a focus on their understanding of punishment. “This lab is interested in larger issues in the development of morality in children,” she says. “Among many other things, we look at when children begin to consider punishment as negative.” These other qualitative questions include children’s understanding of rehabilitation through punishment, deterrence of unwanted behaviors through laws, and moral sentiments on unwanted behaviors.


In addition to what she practices in labs, Dolan continues to learn about different facets of Psychology through related professional development. Every week through the Infant Lab, she participates in workshops that prepare her for her future career and teach her about the latest research. “We learn about CVs and potential careers, and we read papers that are related to our work,” Dolan says. She has also begun looking into information sessions for graduating with honors and then pursuing a graduate degree.


While Psychology is her major focus in the classroom and in her work this summer, Dolan continues to cultivate other skills. She is involved in Women in Business and Pi Beta Phi and is considering adding another major. She finds that Psychology has many connections with other fields. “Psych is so interdisciplinary,” Dolan says. “Physics has similar methodology but different questions. Philosophy has similar questions but different methodology.”


Because of the opportunities she has had to develop her interests and grow into her role as a research assistant, Dolan encourages students who want to do research—any research—to learn more about the options available to them. “We’re so fortunate to go to a school where we are allowed to thrive and there are so many research opportunities,” Dolan says. “But it’s on you to take the first step to enrich the academics beyond the classroom.”