UC Davis graduate, Spring 2022
Major: Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology
I often diligently avoid conflicts, which sometimes means being overly polite or letting other people have their way. But when I feel comfortable fully expressing my opinions, I have always hated to back down. When I was a kid, that compelled me to insist for years that “stragedy” was the correct spelling and change the rules of chess so I could un-checkmate myself. Although I do not condone cheating, my years of practice standing my ground and finding creative ways to come out on top fueled a productive debate at a recent lab meeting. When Jessie critiqued the experiment design that Nora and I had proposed in our presentation, Jessie and I began a battle of wits that evolved into a valuable discussion.
Nora and I have been designing an experiment to test whether mini pigs can be as effective for therapy work as dogs, which have already been established in the scientific literature as therapeutic. We plan to have three different groups: an experimental group in which participants interact with a pig, a negative control group in which participants talk with the researcher and have no interaction with other animals, and a positive control group in which participants interact with a dog. This will allow us to compare the effects of human-pig interaction with both the pig-free baseline and the human-dog interaction, which we expect to be therapeutic based on previous research. We plan to measure both physiological effects (cortisol levels from saliva, brain activity using a portable electroencephalogram (EEG), and heart rate) and psychological effects (using mood and mental health surveys).
Nora and I received mostly positive feedback on our presentation, but Jessie was strongly opposed to the idea of using surveys for psychological measurements. “People will lie,” she said. “They’ll say that the pigs were therapeutic just because they know they’re supposed to be.” I acknowledged that there was some bias inherent in surveys but pointed out that our physiological data would only measure arousal, which could be either positive or negative. When you’re stressed, your cortisol levels and heart rate increase, and your brain has a higher proportion of alert, beta brain waves. But the same physiological reactions can also occur when you’re exuberantly excited. Whether you feel like running towards or away from something, your body needs to prepare for action. “The surveys can help us interpret the physiological data if it indicates arousal,” I argued. “They might not be perfect, but without them, we would have no idea whether people were stressed out or excited by the pigs.” Jessie continued to insist that the data from the surveys would be useless and would only confuse our interpretation of the results. I argued that collecting more data could only make our study stronger, to which Jessie responded: “I just really hate surveys.”
Jessie and I had reached a stalemate, but we both refused to admit it. My inner child who couldn’t lose was well-matched with Jessie, who plans to be a lawyer. Although our chess game was unwinnable, we didn’t abandon it until other people started a different game: helping us both improve our respective ideas. One of the interns, Ashley, suggested making the surveys anonymous so that people would feel more comfortable being honest. Inspired by that, I mentioned the possibility of phrasing our questions so it’s not obvious that we expect the pigs to be therapeutic. Although we cannot completely eliminate bias in people’s responses, with some creativity, we can reduce it to make our results more credible. Since Jessie was still not sold on surveys, Becca suggested using behavioral measurements, such as eye contact and other body language, for Jessie’s experiment with the donkeys and ponies. Although this would require labor-intensive video analysis, it would yield valuable data. Clearly, there are many different successful tactics in the game of experiment design.
When the meeting ended, we had all won. Thanks to our stubbornness and creativity and an environment where we could safely express ourselves, we had made up our own rules and helped each other improve them. As the interns and I continue the work out the details of our experiments, I’m grateful to have colleagues who will both play me to a stalemate and help me out of one. Together, we will refine our "stragedies" to make our research more powerful.
Green Care Blog
Here you can find blog posts from each Green Care Lab intern. We'll be talking about our research process, the benefits of Green Care therapy, and sharing pictures of our work. Follow along with us!