Ngan Hoang headshotThe Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s Summer Program for Undergraduate Research gave me an incredible opportunity to be immersed in a research project at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab. I have always been interested in social psychology and its prospect of creating a more compassionate and understanding society, and thanks to this summer experience, I was empowered to pursue and contribute to the field.

I had the privilege to work in Dr. Jamil Zaki’s Lab and receive training from post-doctoral researcher Leor Hackel. Our primary research topic intersects reinforcement learning, reciprocity, and emotion regulation. This project introduced me to different experimental methodologies and designs that I was not familiar with before. With the limited background in research, I was on a steep learning curve that inspired me to absorb in more each day at the lab. 

Before my internship started, I was aware of the difficult journey ahead. I reached out to Leor, seeking advice on how I should prepare. Yet, on the first day at the lab, I still found myself baffled, staring at the computer screen, trying to figure out the MATLAB codes for our project’s stimuli. The hardest part was to take into account and counterbalance all the variables so that we could measure the effects in all possible situations. With Leor’s guidance and support, things started to make sense.

As I began to get more used to programming on MATLAB and the background literatures, I was challenged again with creating post-task surveys on Qualtrics, a web-based software that I had never used before. After two weeks of trying, and failing, and learning why I failed, the experiment materials were completed.

From then on, I assisted with data collection and data analysis. As I was looking at the biggest dataset I had ever handled, I realized that I’d grown fond of encountering challenges. I got excited as I imagined what possible analyses I could explore and what questions I could ask and answer with the statistical information I had. What puzzled me became my motivation to seek out help and try my best to solve.

Besides our primary project, Leor made extra sure that I would not miss an opportunity to learn new skills to which I would not otherwise be exposed. He introduced me to Yuan Chang Leong, a Ph.D. student in the lab who was working on a neuroimaging project. Thanks to Yuan Chang, I had the chance to gain insights in not only fMRI data collection and fMRI data analysis using FSL software, but also the advantages and challenges of using this technique. This experience, together with many intriguing discussions in the Neuro Journal Club that I was a part of, further deepened my understanding of and the field and expanded my interest in it.

Alongside the skills and knowledge I gained, what made this experience even more unique to me was the glimpse of how my life would be as a researcher. Research can give me the freedom to learn new things every day, ask questions, explore new frontiers, find answers and solutions that can have positive impact on society, and challenge all limits.

As much as I was excited about what research offers, I was uncertain at first whether I had what it takes to do research because there was still so much to learn, and I would get baffled even with preparation, as I did when I started the internship. Throughout the summer, I learned to embrace all the confusion and challenges of research and to use them as opportunities to conquer new quests. With determination and willingness to learn, I now believe I can build a successful career in research.

I was very lucky to be one of the participants in SPSP’s SPUR program. The experience taught me valuable lessons that I will always treasure. I cannot express enough my appreciation towards Leor and other members in Dr. Zaki’s lab. Thank you very much for making this summer the most meaningful and memorable summer of my life!