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Eric Shuman Wins Elmes Pathfinder Prize in Psychology

Eric Shuman, a Washington and Lee University senior, from Black Mountain, N.C., has received the 2013 David G. Elmes Pathfinder Prize in Psychology. It recognizes a student who has shown extraordinary promise in psychological science through outstanding scholarship in basic or applied psychology.

“Eric has definitely shown potential for making a significant contribution to the application of science, and that is part and parcel of the criteria for the Elmes Pathfinder Prize,” said Bob Stewart, associate professor of psychology. “He’s a dual-degree candidate and will receive two separate degrees, in psychology and global politics. He’s also captain of the W&L men’s swim team, which makes him the quintessential scholar-athlete.”

Among the research projects that Shuman participated in was a summer project with Dan Johnson, assistant professor of psychology. The research looked at the effectiveness of using a nano-narrative—a two- or three-sentence story—to improve students’ ability to clarify concepts they are being taught by creating an anchor in the memory, thus providing better learning in the long term.

During the summer, Shuman learned three different software programs, not only the basic function of collecting data online, but he and his fellow research students also tapped into the most advanced functionality of these programs.

“The amount of perseverance and outside-the-box thinking that it took to do this was really quite extraordinary, ” noted Johnson. “Taking on what appears to be a very difficult problem is exactly what Eric goes after and exceeds any expectations that anyone has for solving that problem. That certainly speaks to his scholarship and research potential, and he is clearly very passionate about psychology.”

Shuman’s future career plans include working on conflict and conflict resolution, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He wrote a paper on the topic during his first year and started learning Arabic. He then spent the summer after his sophomore year living with a Palestinian family in the West Bank, studying Arabic and volunteering with a non-governmental organization providing mental health services to Palestinians with psychological trauma from the conflict.

Shuman also conducted research in the class of Julie Woodzicka, professor of psychology, into the role of cognitive function of stereotypes about Arab Muslims. He and fellow students used articles and a video of the aftermath of missile strikes in the Middle East to show that when people felt responsible for the violence against that group, they activated stereotypes of Arab Muslims to detach themselves and lessen their feelings of responsibility.

The research included assessing how detached the subjects were by measuring their physiological arousal—collecting their galvanic skin responses, such as how much electricity their skin conducted or how sweaty their palms were.

Shuman learned how to collect galvanic responses from Stewart. Tyler Lorig, the Ruth Parmly Professor of Psychology, showed Shuman the best way to analyze the data. “They were really interested in the research and were always willing for me to come to their offices and talk about it,” said Shuman.

“One of the reasons I was attracted to Washington and Lee was that I wanted a small school where I could get to know my professors and work closely with them. Professor Johnson has been one of my most supportive mentors during my time here, but the entire Psychology Department is passionate about helping students do research and has provided me with tremendous support and guidance,” he added.

The Elmes Pathfinder Prize was established in 2007. It derives from the Elmes Fund, a permanently endowed fund that honors David G. Elmes, emeritus professor of psychology at W&L. The many alumni, colleagues and friends who benefited from Elmes’ commitment to learning during his 40-year career as a scientist, teacher and mentor at W&L created the endowment.