Class of 2017 Snapshot: Brandon Woo, BSc ‘17 Psychology (Hons)

Meet Brandon WooBSc ‘17 Psychology (Hons). Naturally inquisitive, Brandon’s quest to understand the psychology behind everyday social issues has led him to receive numerous awards and accolades—including a fellowship at Harvard University. This budding scientist puts to practice what he has learned—and researched—in his everyday life. We have no doubt he will soon be mentoring and teaching another generation of students just like him. In advance of graduation, we asked Brandon to reflect on his time as a psychology student, to share his proudest moments, and to offer advice for students on carving out their own academic path.

 

First of all, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your interests, research, and awards??

As a fourth year honours psychology student I’ve been conducting research alongside Dr. Kiley Hamlin, Dr. Mark Schaller, and Dr. Frances Chen here at UBC. My research interests include moral cognition, cooperation, and conflict. Through my research and my studies, my goal is to learn more about the psychological processes underlying social issues in everyday life.

For my fourth year honours thesis with Dr. Hamlin, I’ve received the Canadian Psychological Association Certificate of Academic Excellence and the Morris Belkin Prize for the best honours thesis. I’m humbled to be recognized among all the amazing students in my cohort. I have Dr. Hamlin, Dr. Schaller, and Dr. Lawrence Walker to thank for all their feedback on my writing while in the honours program.

In addition to receiving awards for my thesis research, I’ve received a few research awards from the department: Quinn Research Assistantship Awards to work with Dr. Hamlin (2015) and Dr. Schaller (2016), a NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award to work with Dr. Chen (2017), and a Quinn Travel Grant to present two talks at the meeting for the Society for Research in Child Development on research that I’ve done with Dr. Hamlin (2017). The department has been very supportive of my research experiences, both at UBC and beyond.

After being nominated by Dr. Geoff Hall and Dr. Steven Barnes in our department, I’ve been named a Frank Knox Memorial Fellow for graduate study at Harvard University. Each year, Harvard recognizes up to fifteen incoming graduate students with Knox Fellowships for their academic excellence, character, and leadership potential. It’s a great honour and I’m excited to become part of the Knox Fellow community.

What program were you in?

I’ll be graduating as a BSc psychology student in the honours stream. Although most BSc students choose not to pursue an honours degree in psychology (or behavioural neuroscience, after the recent name change), I’m happy that I did. This experience has been a challenge at times, but it’s been just as – if not more – rewarding, and I know it’s prepared me well for graduate school. Dr. Walker and my classmates in the honours program have provided a wonderful environment for my academic, professional, and personal growth.

Why did you choose to study psychology at UBC?

I’ve always been curious about social issues in current events. When I was choosing a major, I thought that studying psychology could be a great way to understand the foundations of these issues in an empirical manner. I draw a lot of links between what I study, my research, and everyday life.

Was there anything or anyone who inspired you?

I’m fortunate that there have been many people in the department who have inspired me. First and foremost, Dr. Hamlin has been a fantastic mentor and role model. She’s always pushed me to challenge myself further as a student, a researcher, and a person. I’m grateful to have learned so much from my research experiences with her. In addition to Dr. Hamlin, Dr. Schaller and Dr. Chen have empowered me to pursue research questions of my interest. I have a lot of respect for faculty members who invest in their undergraduate students.

Although I haven’t done research directly with Dr. Walker, I have to thank him for encouraging my honours classmates and me to set high goals for ourselves, and for making me believe that high goals are within my reach.

Last, but not least, I’ve been inspired by my classmates in my honours cohort: Ping Tomczyk, Kyle Dadgar, Emma Ward-Griffin, Iris Lok, and many others. Over the past two years, my honours classmates have really rooted for each other to succeed. It’s been very affirming to have such highly motivated peers in my cohort support my own goals, and my honours classmates have made me want to improve myself as a person.

Is there a single most important moment that has stood out for you during your time as a psychology student?

Perhaps one of the most memorable experiences for me was going to the 2016 meeting for the Human Behaviour and Evolution Society. This was my first professional (i.e., non-undergraduate-focused), psychology-focused conference. There, I was able to see researchers whom I’d only known about from reading textbooks or watching their TED talks, and I learned about their more recent work. I even met someone whom I’d cited in my third-year honours thesis, and I had the chance to ask her questions about her research after her talk.

After hearing about how others are exploring questions that are complementary to my own research interests, I spent a lot of time thinking about my research in context. The presentations that I saw inspired many study ideas, some of which I’d love to pursue in graduate school. I’ve found conferences to be very stimulating environments, and I wish that all undergraduate students in psychology could have the experience of going to a professional conference as I did.

What advice do you have for students on how to carve their own academic path?

Take advantage of the opportunities available to you, and make the most of them. UBC, for example, has a lot of funding for undergraduate research. This funding enabled me to gain the research experience necessary to determine whether graduate school was right for me, and what concepts I wanted to explore in graduate school.

Don’t be afraid to seek these opportunities early in your undergraduate career – it’s totally possible. I’ve found a lot of UBC faculty members to be open to mentoring undergraduate students (e.g., by having undergraduate students in their labs). Even in my first year, I was actually able to find a biology professor who cared about my development as a budding scientist; he sponsored my successful application for NSERC-CREATE summer funding.

Find people who believe in you, and people whom you believe in. I don’t know if I’d be ready to move onto graduate school immediately after my undergraduate degree had it not been for the support and encouragement of people like Dr. Hamlin, Dr. Schaller, Dr. Chen, Dr. Walker, Dr. Kyle Danielson, and my honours classmates. I wish that every undergraduate student at UBC finds a community that supports them as much as my mentors and peers have supported me.

Regardless of your successes academically or professionally, don’t neglect your mental health. Retrospectively, I think that I could’ve spent more time with the people I care about or let myself have a bit more fun, and still gotten where I am academically and professionally today.

What was your favourite class, and why?

My favourite class was Principles of Animal Behaviour (PSYC 306) with Dr. Kiran Soma. Although I don’t conduct research on non-human animal behaviour, I appreciated Dr. Soma’s emphasis on evaluating and addressing the limitations of studies. This approach is something that I think is underappreciated in most other undergraduate psychology courses that I’ve taken, but an approach that could be very helpful for those interested in pursuing research further.

As I was interviewing for graduate school programs, for example, one of my potential advisors actually challenged me to criticize one of his papers and propose a follow-up study to it – and I’m happy that I’d practiced and honed these abilities in Dr. Soma’s class.

Which academic and professional achievements are you most proud of?

When I started at UBC, I didn’t realize the extent that I could get involved with research as an undergraduate student. Four years down the road, I’m a published author in a respectable peer-reviewed journal, I have a paper under revised review as first-author, and I’ve presented two papers as talks at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, one of the major conferences for developmental psychology. Additionally, I’ve received an offer of admission from the graduate school program that best fit my goals and research interests. I’ve achieved everything that I’ve wanted academically, professionally, and more.

I’d like to thank my mentors – Dr. Hamlin, Dr. Schaller, Dr. Chen, Dr. Walker, and Dr. Danielson – for believing in me and for challenging me to do even better. In a way, these are their achievements as much as they are mine – and as proud as I am, I hope that I’ve made them proud too.

What are your future career plans?

This fall, I’m heading to Harvard University to pursue a PhD in social psychology. There, I’ll have the opportunity to learn fMRI methodology and to explore questions of social cognition that are complementary to the research that I’ve done with Dr. Hamlin, Dr. Schaller, and Dr. Chen here at UBC.

My ultimate goal is to become a professor. I love the intellectual stimulation that I get from discussing research ideas. I’d be happy to immerse myself in environments that would foster such discussion; I know it would put me in a better position to contribute to our field.

My future advisor once told me that the choice to be in academia shouldn’t be thought of as a job, but as a calling. The field first invests in you – the student – so that you can strengthen your mind and your scientific virtues. Then, it becomes your turn to invest in the field’s next generations. Being a student, I really respect this way of life, and how my mentors have empowered me to become more integrated in the academic community. If I can one day be as good a mentor to someone as my mentors here at UBC have been to me, I’ll be proud.