UNT Psychology Student Funded For Future Research

“Absolute awe and disbelief” colored the reaction of UNT doctoral student Ms. Rene Cloutier, who recently learned that she became a recipient of the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award. Totaling $71,674, the award, according to a press release from UNT will provide financial funding for the next two years as Cloutier completes her PhD in experimental psychology, recently renamed behavioral science. 

Cloutier’s doctoral research will hone in specifically on the connection between social anxiety in adolescents and risky behaviors among adults including substance abuse. 

“Broadly, we know that being around other people can often make us do things that we wouldn’t normally do,” Cloutier stated.”However, we also know that not everyone is as susceptible to the influences of peers nor is everyone equally susceptible across all situations.”

She elaborates that age plays an important factor in the engagement of certain behaviors while citing that behaviors change as children transition into adulthood. However, traits such as social anxiety when left untreated, can affect individuals for the rest of their lives. 

“Social anxiety symptoms are really common, especially among adolescents, and may account for who is more susceptible to engaging in risky behaviors while around peers, then later on, in the development of more serious problems.”

Cloutier’s interest in psychology first manifested in high school. She continued her educational path throughout her undergraduate degree at SUNY College in Potsdamn, New York as cited by the UNT press release. Following into her masters and doctoral studies at UNT, Cloutier credits her mentors as well as her persistence and inquisitiveness as some of the driving factors leading into her research. 

“I love that we are not only consumers of information but generators of it. At some point, you realize Google doesn’t have all the answers yet because someone hasn’t researched every topic yet – as a researcher you get to identify those boundaries and actively push them back. Unfortunately, when you do things others haven’t done before you end up making a lot of mistakes and you have to be okay with that,” Cloutier added. 

The grueling application process added to the balancing act of Cloutier’s other commitments including taking classes herself while teaching at the university, coordinating research for her adviser and dedicating time to her other research projects. 

“Graduate school is a serious challenge on its own and applying for an award like this requires devoting a lot of time and energy. What makes it even more stressful is knowing that after putting in all of this work, you might not actually get it. I spent almost two years designing the project, writing, submitting, revising, and (after an initial rejection) resubmitting this grant.”

Cloutier credits the assistance of her mentor Dr. Heidemarie Blumenthal for not encouraging her to apply for the award, but also by providing assistance in the two-year process. Cloutier also credits her co-sponsors Dr. Daniel Taylor of UNT and Dr. Matthew Feldner, professor of psychology of the University of Arkansas among others in the UNT psychology department as additional support. Moving forward, Cloutier will continue to coordinate with her mentor and sponsors in regards to her research going forward. 

Overall, Cloutier hopes her the results of her research will contribute to the development of more concentrated prevention and intervention programs for youth. She elaborates that there isn’t abundant internal lab research to test specific research questions. Therefore, according to Cloutier, this limits understanding and narrows the best solutions to tackle the problems being presented. 

“This project will be one of the first to bring kids in to use an experimental design to test how social context and social anxiety may interact as risk factors for other behaviors,” Cloutier said. “However, I want to be really careful about not ‘over-selling’ the current project – as a science we don’t really want to use a single study to make any major claims on anything before replicating."

The projected date for Cloutier’s completion of her doctoral degree is set for May 2019. 

“For me this project is simply the first step towards developing a programmatic line of research that can address some of the bigger issues surrounding adolescence,” she concluded. 

Header image design by Brittany Keeton