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UH Student Earns $20,000 Scholarship, Job from NIHPsychology Major Says Much of His Success in the Lab is Due to Mentors and a `No Pain, No Gain’ Approach

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December 13, 2008-Houston-
As far as things to be thankful for go, University of Houston student Brian Weisinger had a full plate this year. The senior psychology major learned this fall that the National Institutes of Health had awarded him $20,000 toward his academic and living expenses - and given him a job for the summer.

Yet the Houston native tells the story quite matter-of-factly, as if winning the nationally competitive award and landing a gig in this competitive job market weren't exceptional. After all, in his view, he's been plugging away at academics and research for years, and hard work is supposed to pay off.

"It takes a lot of time and commitment from yourself, but it is worth it because you really only get out of it what you put into it," Weisinger explained.

The 26-year-old said he believes in the "no pain, no gain" approach, and that's why he threw himself into research projects in five different UH laboratories - all while working off campus another 30 hours a week .

"I have learned what I do like and what I don't," he explained. "I have been able to narrow down the direction I would like to go in my further studies, which I would not have known so clearly without actually working in these research labs."

Weisinger, who already had won two UH research funding awards, said he feels well-prepared for his stint at the NIH because he has had so much hands-on experience.

"There is really no other way to learn how to be a researcher than to actually participate in it and learn from experience," he said. "There is no class that will teach you what you need to know."

Weisinger credits much of his success to associate professor Mary Naus and her health psychology research group.

"Working with Dr. Naus and her team has really helped me become the person I am today," he said. "Dr. Naus has been doing this for a long time, and she is good at what she does. She takes pride in the development of her undergraduate research assistants. She knows where the student needs to be to be prepared for graduate school, and she makes sure that you learn all the different aspects of research that will help you in your future."

Naus said Weisinger's strong academic skills and commitment made him one of the top students to have participated in the structured training program in clinical health psychology.

"Our research group is very proud of extraordinary research assistants like Brian," Naus said. "We select about three students per year, and the best of them work with our team for two years, culminating their training with their own honors theses and authorship on conference posters."

Weisinger said that working alongside graduate students in the laboratories has taught him a lot, because they "fill in any blanks and pass on skills that are essential" to success in research endeavors.

"I do not come from a family of academic types," the Spring Woods High School graduate said. "So everything I have experienced has been new to me, which made the mentors in my life so much more valuable."

Weisinger said he first got into research because he knew he needed to, but his attitude toward it quickly changed.

"I became involved in research after I took a clinical psychology class here at UH," he said. "I learned that to become what I wanted to be - a clinical psychologist - I would need to get involved in research: one, because it is part of what a clinical psychologist does as a professional and, two, because if I got involved in research as an undergraduate it would enhance my application for graduate school and increase my chances for getting into a program somewhere, because getting into graduate school is so competitive.

"Now that I have been a research assistant, I have found out that it is something I actually enjoy, and it is something I would like to do for the rest of my life."

He performed so well, in fact, that UH awarded him both the Provost Undergraduate Research Scholarship (PURS) and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) to fund his research activities.

His thesis, done in collaboration with graduate student Stephanie Kovacs, who is studying child-family clinical health psychology, examines how the parents of sick children approach treatment options and how the ages and illnesses of the children interact with demographic and personal characteristics of the parents.

"With pediatric illness, treatment decisions may be particularly hard for parents due to conflicting feelings of wanting to protect the child while at the same time minimize the child's suffering," explained Weisinger. "To facilitate discussion between parents and physicians, it is important to understand how the characteristics of a child patient impact the treatments selected."

The SURF award funded the initial research needed to create a questionnaire that investigates how a serious illness affects a patient's goals and how abandoning or changing those goals affect the patient's quality of life. Weisinger collaborated on that project with Liz Ross, a first-year clinical health psychology graduate student who assisted in the coding and statistical analyses.

"Various areas of psychology have investigated goals and their impact on quality of life. However, there has been little research in health psychology addressing the role of serious illness upon goals," he said.

More than 200 students applied for the NIH Undergraduate Scholarship Program, but only 14 won awards this year to cover their educational expenses and become paid research trainees at the agency this summer.  Each scholar will be mentored by both an NIH researcher and postdoctoral fellow and will attend formal seminars and participate in a variety of programs.

After graduation, the scholars typically continue their training as full-time employees for a year in NIH research laboratories. Weisinger said he hopes to join a clinical psychology graduate program in the fall, but the extra year of training at NIH - the world's largest biomedical research institution - also would be hard to turn down.

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Categories: Student Success