Over the summer, I worked with Dr. Alison Buttenheim and a team of undergraduate students on a study looking at the behavioral phenotypes—or levels of cognitive biases and heuristics—in pregnant women who smoke or who quit smoking upon learning about their pregnancy. We sought to assess preferences for smoking cessation programs and see how these preferences may be related to the behavioral phenotypes. In preparation for creating the survey instrument, we searched through existing literature on various topics relevant to our study like measurement of cognitive biases, online survey recruitment platforms, and the effectiveness of smoking cessation strategies. Also, we completed an application for approval by the University of Pennsylvania’s Institutional Review Board. Once we learned more about these aspects of our study and received approval from the IRB, we started to create a survey instrument. Reading through and annotating literature beforehand was helpful for developing many of the cognitive assessments. Our study focused on present bias, optimism bias, risk aversion, and other well-established cognitive biases and heuristics.
To support the validity of the data, we made sure to include several attention and validity checks. Because we wanted to draw samples from both an online population and a clinical population, we also needed to consider the logistics of running studies through online platforms like Amazon’s mechanical Turk and through clinic sites throughout West Philadelphia. Payment, privacy, and confidentiality were among important logistical considerations we made when planning how we would run the surveys. Having not been familiar with many of these online platforms before, we adjusted our online recruitment strategy as we learned firsthand how these various services operated. By the end of the summer, we had gathered a significant amount of data from the online platforms mTurk, Reddit, SoapBox, and Qualtrics and also the prenatal clinic locations the Helen O’Dickens Clinic at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, the Health Annex, and Spectrum Health Services. Upon closing our online recruitment channels at the end of the summer, we evaluated our progress and started to plan analysis of our resulting data.
Ultimately, my experiences working on the behavioral phenotyping study were not only engaging and fulfilling but also enjoyable. I enjoyed working with a team of other undergraduate students. I was able to hone my individual strengths and apply what I might have learned in the past but also collaborate with and learn from my peers. While one of us focused on tracking recruitment on a certain online platform, another one of us could focus on organizing recruitment at a prenatal clinic site. In general, I learned a lot about the research process overall—from seeking IRB approval to actually administering the survey. Along the way, we faced several challenges. However, by realizing past mistakes and learning how to troubleshoot, I found we were able to adapt any research protocols and procedures to the circumstances effectively and appropriately. Overall, research challenged me to consider various perspectives and learn how to put theory into practice.