Samantha Cacace: The psychology of choosing psychology

Apr 28 2011 Published by under Behavioral Sciences, Meeting Presentations

One of the stated goals of the NIGMS RISE mechanism is to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who pursue doctoral education in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. We are fortunate here at NCCU to have an excellent Department of Psychology (and other social sciences departments) who collaborate closely with the basic science departments. Psychology and Public Health Education faculty are key members, for example, of projects within a NCI U54 cancer research program to examine behavioral and community-based approaches to increasing cancer screening among local minority groups.

The position of the NCCU RISE internal advisory board has been that the behavioral sciences are intertwined with critical issues where basic sciences directly influence the human condition. What good is understanding dietary causes of diabetes, cancer, and/or obesity, if people don't or can't use this information to reduce their disease risk? And how do our interactions with one another influence our health?

Today, we bring you one of our RISE scholars from the Department of Psychology, Samantha Cacace. Sam is a completing her first year in the Master's Program in Psychology after getting hooked on the field over at our constituent member institution, NC State University in Raleigh (about 20 miles away). We've asked Samantha to tell us about her path to this discipline and elaborate on her first professional meeting presentation earlier this month.

Samantha Cacace - Autobiography

NCCU psychology master's student, Samantha Cacace.

As far as I was concerned, psychology was something that people did in an office with a lounge chair and a couch. My mother was an artist from New York City and my father a rather nefarious businessman from Staten Island, and I elected for the former path to follow. Throughout high school, I strove to improve my artistic talents. I was a teacher’s assistant for the art department for my junior and senior year and spent my independent study periods painting or drawing. Unfortunately, my first portfolio review from a prestigious art college ended in disaster; the reviewer told me that I had no vision, and I was sent home in tears.

Soon afterward, I grew tired and bored of public school’s version academic advancement and dropped out two months before I was supposed to graduate, one week after I turned 18. To the surprise of my GED testing proctor, I was able to earn my high school diploma equivalent in two weeks. I took a year off to try to understand the so-called “real world”, and found it not to my liking. When I returned to school, I had a new plan: psychology. I had taken one psychology class as an elective in high school, and it turned out to be the only other subject I found interesting other than art and design.

The plan to move to social psychology started in a criminology course at North Carolina State University while I was getting my Bachelor’s in Psychology. The instructor had a reputation as a difficult instructor, both personally and academically. Despite this, I managed to communicate with him efficiently and eventually met with him to discuss my future. Of course, he attempted to persuade me to enter into criminology, but when he learned that I was a psychology major, he suggested that I might be interested in social psychology because of the freedom to move between disciplines that came with such a degree. At the time, I brushed off the idea, wanting to decide on a finer line between either sociology or psychology.

I received a sign the following semester when I had to start assembling a research project for my statistics course. I found that I had become increasingly annoyed at how much attention people paid to their cell phones and laptop computers, and how little attention they had started to pay to the people around them. Students at NCSU often had both an MP3 player in their ears and the small screen of a cellular phone in front of their face at all times. Opportunities that students should have been taking to make new friends were spent text messaging old ones. Even my own friends had elected to text or email me rather than picking up the telephone to call. My pet peeve became my passion, and I decided that I wanted to learn more about what technology was doing to peoples’ relationships. When I brought this idea up to my statistics instructor, she suggested that I go speak to the last social psychologist in the building. Remembering what my criminology instructor had said about social psychology, I decided that it might be time to investigate.

When I met with Dr. Rupert Nacoste, he seemed taken with my intrusion: like he was studying an alien life form. He sat in silence, which prompted me to introduce myself and explain my idea of a survey for a student population that would investigate technology use and relationship impact. Dr. Nacoste seemed excited, and we talked for a while about how to get started, and he suggested some reading for me. We worked well together, and at the end of the semester, we had created a survey and conducted a pilot study. The following semester, I used the information to create a full survey for use in my statistics project. I’ve been hooked on research ever since, and have started to further explore the interactions of people and technology at the Master’s in Psychology program at North Carolina Central University; hopefully, I can continue on this path for the remainder of my research career.

[Dr. Rupert Nacoste is a distinguished alumni professor of social psychology at NC State and author of Making Gumbo in the University, a treatise on how universities have struggled and failed to manage the diversity of a college campus. He will be reading and speaking on his book tomorrow evening, Friday, April 29, 7:30 pm, at Quail Ridge Bookstore in Raleigh - Ed.]


19th Annual Imhotep Interdisciplinary Student Research Conference
On April 7th, I embarked on a 10.5 hour road trip to Tallahassee, FL to attend the 19th Annual Imhotep Interdisciplinary Student Research Conference entitled, The Evolution of Black Psychology in the Age of Globalization. At 3:00AM on April 8th, I arrived at my hotel room and settled in for the 5 hours of sleep I would get before heading to the conference.

Venue for the 19th Annual Imhotep Conference, "The Evolution of Black Psychology in the Age of Globalization."

After drearily consuming my daily requirements of coffee and square-shaped eggs, I headed to the car and took the short drive from the hotel to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU). This was to be my first conference experience, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew that attending a university-sponsored conference would be an excellent segue into future presentations. While the conference welcomes people from different disciplines all over the country, it’s not well-advertised. If nothing else, the relatively small crowd would help me get over my presentation jitters.

Upon arrival at FAMU, I located the auditorium where I would be giving my lecture: Cultural Lag Among Minorities: A Theory of Technological Impact. I took a seat to wait my turn, and watched undergraduates and graduates from several different universities including FAMU give their presentations. I immediately felt overwhelmed, as I was to be the first of only two theoretical paper presentations in the entire program (and the person presenting the other theoretical paper had come with me); even the undergraduate students were presenting years worth of research complete with data and conclusions. The pit in my stomach grew as I watched presentation after presentation.

When it came time for me to approach the podium, I felt a small ache of fear rise up in me. Here I was, in an auditorium full of faculty and students from FAMU and elsewhere, about to give my first talk. I had done presentations before in front of classrooms, but when one is among their peers, there’s a sense that you can do no wrong. Here, there were judges: people with PhDs in my field waiting to hear my work. To say that I was nervous is an understatement. The crowd was relatively small, and consisted mostly of undergraduates of FAMU. However, my focus was not on them, it was on the two rows of faculty members, future colleagues, seated directly in front of me.

Fortunately, the presentation went well. I expected to be picked apart; especially since I was bringing back a very old theory for re-analysis. Instead, I got similar questions and comments from faculty members as I have from students whom I have presented to in the past; people are interested in what technology is doing to us, and has the potential to do. One commenter noted that older generations see the value of face-to-face contact, and that younger generations are losing sight of that value. Plenty of research questions remain about what technology is doing to relationships, and attending this conference made me realize with certainty that other people are thinking about technology-mediated communication.

I think my presentation lit some fires to get people contemplating the effects of a cell phone in every pocket and an Internet connection in every home. Rather than follow blindly, we need to understand the consequences of any phenomenon before we dive headfirst into it. If ever there was a time for social scientists to learn about a situation as it happens, now is that time. Technology is developing new rules about how we create, maintain, and end relationships.

I’m glad that I got the opportunity to do my first presentation at a small conference, and even happier that that I didn’t trip over myself. I really felt like I got other scholars involved in the conversation, and even though I wasn’t an award winner, it was a good experience for me overall. Now, I’m looking forward to my next presentation, and feel prepared to give another talk. Hopefully, the next set of scholars I am in front of will be as open-minded, and as genial as the people I met at FAMU.

3 responses so far

  • Matt says:

    Excellent post, Samantha. You will find that in any science a well though out, interesting question is the most important part of your research. Focused, good questions are the sign of an excellent scientist!
    Keep up the good work.

  • Samantha,

    As always you continue to pursue this line of question with both passion and precise theoretical thinking. From the beginning I was impressed; I continue to be impressed.

  • David says:

    Professor Nacoste,

    Thank you so much for coming by to comment. We are so fortunate to have Samantha as part of our program. She is definitely carrying the torch in a manner befitting of your mentoring and reputation.