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Psychology student presents research at D.C. conference

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College senior psychology major Brad Celestin may be on “the decade plan,” but that hasn’t kept him from doing exemplary work.

Celestin and his major professor, Dwight Krehbiel, traveled to Washington, D.C., in mid-November where Celestin was one of about 160 student presenters from colleges and universities across the United States at the FUN Undergraduate Research Poster Session.

FUN, of which Krehbiel is a member, is Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience, whose satellite meeting accompanies the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

Celestin’s poster, titled “Neural Correlates of Implicit Sexual Identity Bias as a Function of Religiosity,” was based on his senior thesis project.

He started his studies at Bethel in the early 2000s but didn’t finish. Now married (to Bethel graduate Amber Celestin) and working full-time in law enforcement, he says, “It’s interesting how a few years in the world can change your perspective.”

For the last two years, he has been working at completing his degree in psychology, adding a certificate in neuroscience. He is set to graduate in May 2012.

Although he says psychology is certainly a useful discipline for his profession, he has “more research interest than clinical or counseling.”

For his poster, Celestin looked at EEG read-outs of brain activity related to reaction times in people who were given religious prompts in the form of biblical texts usually associated with homosexuality.

“One way to get at implicit, or unconscious, bias is to use behavioral measures like reaction time rather than survey measures that simply ask people to tell you their attitudes,” he says. “The Implicit Association Test is a method for doing this. It pairs positive and negative adjectives with two distinct categories – for example, it is traditionally done with white and black faces or names, and significant differences in averaged reaction times demonstrate implicit racial bias.

“Many other categories have been examined using the IAT,” he continues, “from gender to self-esteem. I decided to look at sexual identity. Implicit measures were particularly important here because various research convincingly demonstrates that people will be less and less truthful on explicit measures the more the social sensitivity of the topic increases.”

Reaction time measurements showed that test subjects were slower to pair something “good” with pictures of same-sex couples than of opposite-sex couples. EEG results indicated that these slow responses were accompanied by strong emotional responses, which were modified by the biblical texts. Celestin will continue looking at implications of his research as he completes the thesis.

Through attending the poster presentation and Society for Neuroscience Meetings, which draw around 32,000 people, Celestin met others who have done research similar to his.

“I made some good contacts,” he says. “There was a post-doctoral student from Boston College who has done similar research using the same paradigm, but her questions were focused on homeless people.”

His purpose for doing this research is “to identify causal relationships,” he says.

“The purpose of using an experimental paradigm – as opposed to just a correlational design, in which one manipulated variable, the scriptural passages, directly precedes the dependent, or the other, variables – is to attempt to identify causal relationships,” he says. “What happens when people are exposed to different Scriptures and how does it affect bias? What is the relationship of religiosity to implicit sexual identity bias?

“So far, the data from my experiment indicate that bias against homosexuals increases as religious fundamentalism increases,” he adds. “[It shows] that there is something significantly different happening in the brains of individuals with high versus low fundamentalism, and in the same people who are exposed to persecutory, or ‘hateful,’ versus benevolent Scripture.”

“Brad really did a huge amount of work and had a creative experimental design,” Krehbiel says. “He understood the issues in the literature better than most students coming into a senior thesis project. He has managed to solve a whole bunch of difficult data analysis problems that have always stymied projects in the past. I don’t think there are many undergraduates out there who know how to do what Brad [does].”

In fact, Krehbiel feels Celestin’s work is good enough to submit for consideration to the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) Posters-on-the-Hill competition, which only accepts about 60 applicants. They will find out at the end of January if it was accepted.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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