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A Researcher at Heart: Ashley Phares ’18



Nov 30, 2017

11/30/17

Ashley Phares"The most fulfilling part of my research was that the results have the potential to impact the lives of other people," says Randolph-Macon College student Ashley Phares '18.

Phares, a psychology major and biology minor, undertook a significant task during the past year when she researched how the lives of combat-wounded veterans might be helped through exercise.

Her research was two-fold: She did her initial research as part of her Research and Theoretical Systems (RATS) course, taught by Psychology Professor Kristen Klaaren, in which students develop and test their own research questions in small groups; and she continued her research with Psychology Professor Antonina Farmer in conjunction with the SURF (Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program. SURF offers students the opportunity to conduct 10 weeks of summer research under the guidance of a faculty mentor.

Phares' SURF research focused on assessing the impact of the Catch A Lift (CAL) program on veterans' lives. Catch A Lift, based in Lutherville, Maryland, aims to improve the lives of combat-wounded veterans by providing disabled vets with access to in-home gym equipment or gym memberships.

From Preliminary Evidence to Advanced Research
"At the conclusion of Professor Klaaren's class, my classmates and I had preliminary evidence that Catch A Lift might be an effective program in promoting greater physical activity and social support in combat-wounded veterans," explains Phares. "Though this was a great finding, based on the published statistics about the quality of life of veterans, I thought it was important to examine the specific psychological effects of the Catch a Lift program."

Phares approached Farmer, a clinical psychologist, to discuss how to help this non-profit organization determine whether their program helps the mental health of the veterans it serves. Working under the mentorship of Farmer, Phares also communicated regularly with Lynn Coffland, president and founder of CAL.

"My research was extensive; I looked at the physical, social, and psychological health of 74 veterans through a total of 10 self-report measures," explains Phares. "Therefore, I spent a lot of time reading. There was no 'typical day' of research for me; nearly every week I was working on a different part of the project, from applying for approval from R-MC's Institutional Review Board—which determines whether a planned research project abides by ethical guidelines—to developing the online survey to preparing reports about what I learned for the college and the organization."

A Dedicated Concern
Coffland says that during the past seven years in which Catch A Lift has been serving combat injured veterans, the organization has seen unprecedented improvements in both physical and mental health as a result of exercise.

"To have had Randolph-Macon assist us in our surveys so that the data collected was scientifically qualified, was very validating for our work," she says. "Ashley and Professor Farmer showed a dedicated concern to our veteran members' needs and always professionally and respectfully approached the sensitive subject matters at hand. Additionally, Ashley presented her collected data in a useful format for our team to use on a regular basis."

Research Presentation
Phares discovered that the literature examining the relationship between exercise and psychological symptomology in veterans is extremely limited, particularly when it comes to post-traumatic stress symptoms.

"My study is one of the first conducted that examines this relationship quantitatively, and it suggests that exercise can be beneficial for these veterans, which is kind of amazing," says Phares, who traveled with Farmer to CAL's Baltimore office to present her research to Coffland and to Linda Rebeor, director for volunteers and Veteran Outreach.

Mentorship + Future Plans
"I was very fortunate to have Professor Farmer as an advisor on the project," says Phares. "She worked with veterans during the residency portion of her Ph.D. program, so she had a lot of valuable insight into the minds of veterans that helped drive my project forward. Additionally, she is very knowledgeable about the research process—she showed me lots of ways to make the process more efficient: how to locate articles, how to write syntax code for statistical analysis, how to clean data, and how to run analyses."

Farmer describes Phares as an enthusiastic and quick learner.

"Ashley showed so much initiative throughout this whole project, from developing the initial ideas to finding novel ways of interpreting the data," says Farmer. "She has helped Catch a Lift improve the way it assesses members' progress, and she even took on a senior project that will help Catch a Lift evaluate a new grant-funded program component."

Phares is currently in the process of preparing her research for national academic conference presentations and for publication in academic journals. She is also busy applying to the National Institutes of Health Intramural Research Training Award (NIH IRTA) program, a post-baccalaureate program.

"I hope to work at NIH IRTA for two years before moving on to grad school, hopefully into a doctoral program in clinical psychology," she says.