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Selena Tran

Selena Tran, Psychology

Selena Tran
“I realized there was all this opportunity on campus to do research and get paid.”
Selena Tran knows a lot about adaptive behavior and building relationships.

For her Honors College capstone, the psychology major studied the behavior of five Western lowland gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo. At first, she looked for signs of adaptation to zoo life, but later shifted her focus to individual differences and relationships between the gorillas. She also wanted to build a relationship with zoo officials and pave the way for future UML researchers to partner with the zoo.

The daughter of Vietnamese immigrants and the first in her family to complete a four-year degree, Tran also studied adaptive behavior among college students — specifically, the acculturation of underrepresented minorities to college — with Prof. Khan T. Dinh.

And she’s done a lot of adapting and growing herself. As a first-year student, Tran worked 30 hours a week at Market Basket to help her family, although she had won a full-tuition scholarship to attend the university and was living at home in Lowell.

In addition, Tran received a $4,000 co-op scholarship, which supported her research with Dinh the summer after her freshman year. That experience opened her eyes to all the support available on campus and the value of building relationships with professors.

“I realized there was all this opportunity on campus to do research and get paid,” says Tran, who has a minor in biology.

Since then, she’s worked with five more professors on everything from attitudes toward contraceptive use among Southeast Asian women (Prof. Ivy Ho) to cognitive training for Alzheimer’s patients (Asst. Prof. Yana Weinstein) to eye movements associated with learning (Assoc. Prof. Richard Serna) to calibrating equipment for a study of synesthesia (Prof. Thomas Gordon) and gorilla behavior (Lecturer Mary Duell).

“Research with professors is pretty much my life here,” she laughs.

Tran has presented at the Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium twice — she won a $250 prize for her gorilla research — and has received Honors College fellowships and an Emerging Scholar award to support some of her work.

She’s also worked at the Center for Asian American Studies, helping professors on multiple projects and presenting at the national Asian American Studies Conference. Her work there won her the Chancellor’s Medal for Diversity and Inclusion.

And in the summer of 2015, she won a National Science Foundation fellowship to work in a cognitive neuroscience lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A Disability in Literature class with Assoc. Prof. of English Bridget Marshall inspired her to initiate the Alzheimer’s project with Weinstein, a cognitive psychologist. Together, they are reviewing and synthesizing the scientific literature on the efficacy of cognitive training in Alzheimer’s patients compared with healthy adults. They plan to publish their results together.

Now Tran is applying for research jobs in the Washington, D.C., area, contacting people recommended by her professors. She plans to gain more research experience while she tries to decide whether to pursue a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience, with a focus on Alzheimer’s, or biological neuroscience, which is more like the gorilla research.

Either way, she’s learned some big-picture psychology that applies to her own life: how to adapt, instead of getting stressed out over such decisions.

“The most important thing I’ve learned is that no one’s path is really linear,” she says. “When I started, I was the kind of person who had to have a five-year plan and a 10-year plan, and that was definitely to go to graduate school. Then I realized it's OK to take a break — and I have to figure out what I really love if I'm going to do it full-time.”