Summer research – Powell ’17

Senior Psychology minor Carson Powell ’17 spent part of his summer at Wabash, working with Dr. Karen Gunther. 

This summer I spent eight weeks working with Dr. Karen Gunther researching color vision and gathering pilot data for a grant proposal due to be submitted in the summer of 2017. Dr. Gunther’s research focuses on determining the characteristics of visual stimuli that activate non-cardinal color mechanisms.main_IMG_1541

Non-cardinal colors are all colors other than the cardinal colors of red, green, violet, chartreuse, black, and white. It is believed that cardinal colors are processed in the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) of the brain while non-cardinal color processing occurs beyond the LGN in the cortex.

We studied the activation of non-cardinal color mechanisms by measuring the ability of 4 test subjects to detect a circular stimulus in varying degrees of background noise. In the lab, a computer monitor would display a striped or single color stimulus in background noise comprised of similar or different colors than the stimulus. The test subject was then tasked with identifying the side of the screen that the stimulus appeared. The goal of the experiment was to observe variations in detection thresholds between different stimuli and noise types that would be indicative of separate color mechanisms.

Although Dr. Gunther’s experiment replicated the studies of two color planes by prominent researchers in the field of color vision, it also explored non-cardinal color mechanisms in the Tritan and Luminance color plane in which no published information currently exists. Interestingly enough, the data we collected regarding striped stimuli contradicted previous findings while our results in the Tritan and Luminance color plane matched the trends predicted by previous experiments. Hopefully, Dr. Gunther will be able to acquire the necessary grant funding so that six more subjects can be tested. Ten total test subjects might not seem like a lot, but each subject spent roughly 15 hours completing the experiment.

While I was collecting data for Dr. Gunther’s experiment, I also spent a lot of time reading primary literature in the field of color vision. This summer was my first taste of color vision psychophysics, so this process was very similar to learning a new language. Over time, terms such as Gabor, dipper functions, and bandpass became commonplace, and Dr. Gunther spent countless hours helping me interpret scientific articles so that I had a greater appreciation for the experiment we were running.

In addition to learning about color vision, I read the Introduction to the Responsible Conduct of Research handbook by Nicholas Steneck. Dr. Gunther did an excellent job of explaining scientific ethics as we reviewed several of the hypothetical scenarios presented in the book and discussed recent findings of scientific misconduct. I learned that the Gentleman’s Rule is just as relevant to science as it is to the way one conducts himself on a daily basis.

Overall, I gained an invaluable understanding of what it means to conduct scientific research. The experience was not comparable to the way science is represented by Hollywood. There were computer crashes, MATLAB bugs, test subjects that were all too human, and data that occasionally defied logic. But that’s part of the process that comes with trying to find an answer to a question that has never been solved before. In a sense, I’m grateful to have faced a few speed bumps along the way so that I know what kind of day-to-day challenges I’ll face in the future.

I would like to thank Dr. Gunther and Wabash College Psychology Department for hosting me this summer. I would also like to thank those that helped fund this internship and had donated to Wabash on the Day of Giving;  I am planning on attending the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego this fall due to your generosity. While I’m currently unsure of my plans following graduation this spring, I know that I will continue to do scientific research in some capacity and I’m glad to have had my first research experience at Wabash College.