SJC Long Island senior Rachel Sullivan received the prestigious Psi Chi Grant Award from the International Honor Society in Psychology for her senior research on mindfulness and meditation.
“Although there has been a lot of research done on how meditation influences attention in the context of concentration, there is a lack of literature regarding how it may affect the stimuli in the environment people are inclined to pick out and attend to,” said Sullivan, who’s majoring in industrial-organizational psychology, religious studies and philosophy, and minoring in mindfulness and contemplative living.
“My idea (for my thesis) was that meditation training, particularly practice with a focus on compassion, may influence what stimuli we put an emphasis on and therefore automatically attend to,” said Sullivan, 21, of Stony Brook.
Sullivan, the president of SJC Long Island’s chapter of Psi Chi, said she felt exhilarated once she read the first sentence of the email from the international honor society notifying her she received the grant.
“I am so thankful for all of the help and support that Dr. McGoey has provided,” said Sullivan, who thesis adviser is Lynn McGoey, Ph.D. “We have been talking about this idea since I was in her Physiological Psychology class a year ago. She was always willing to listen when I had new ideas, and that really helped me develop my questions into something that I could actually study.”
Sullivan believes her interest in mindfulness and meditation stems from her upbringing.
“My family has always had an interest in Eastern medicine, and I have been getting acupuncture since middle school,” the Ward Melville High School alumna said. “My dad also goes to a dojo to practice Tai Chi, meditation and aikido every week. From those early exposures, I became very interested in Eastern philosophy and spirituality.”
“I am hoping that this research in particular may someday change the ways that we interact with each other and conduct difficult dialogues about pressing issues,” she said. “For example, in news stories about social justice issues, or in conversations about controversial topics, do people automatically pay the most attention to what threatens them and thus react in anger or fear, or do they focus on the opportunity for compassion, where they are inclined to conduct themselves with kindness and a desire to help?”
Suited for Psychology
After graduating from SJC Long Island in May, Sullivan plans to pursue a graduate degree in industrial-organization psychology, with the goal of returning to higher education, particularly as a professor — or with a role in student leadership and involvement.
“I have been a part of the Orientation Team for the past two years, as well as the Planning Committee last summer,” said Sullivan, whose interest in workplace culture and student life stems from her extensive involvement at SJC Long Island. “I am a member of Campus Activities Board. I’ve been in Service Circle since I was a freshman. I also participated in activities like our Alternative Winter Break, (and) the Pumpkin Pie Bake-a-thon.”
While her interest in psychology developed during her childhood, Sullivan’s introduction to the specific field of industrial-organizational psychology has come from her time at St. Joseph’s.
“I actually have wanted to work in the field of psychology since I was in elementary school,” she said. “The human mind is one of the great frontiers of exploration. There is still so much about ourselves that we do not understand. Gaining knowledge about how we create the paradigms we view the world through cannot only give us valuable insight into ourselves, but it can also provide us with the opportunity to use that information to shape the world we live in.”
Ready for the Future
Whatever career Sullivan’s future holds, she intends to enter it prepared.
“The greatest gift any teacher can give is that of a curious mind. All of my psychology professors have not only given me a wonderful foundation of knowledge and experience to work from, but they have also always taken the extra time to encourage me to look more deeply into what I have learned outside of class,” she said. “Knowing that I would always be able to find someone willing to listen to my questions and to help me explore my interests encouraged me to keep doing so.”