By Tiffany Whitfield

Representation in science matters to Lauren Butler who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from Old Dominion University in May 2022. Diversity and inclusion are the two factors that initially led Butler to ODU. As an African American woman who is pursuing a career in a field where minorities and women are underrepresented, she found her footing. At ODU she not only found a place of belonging but was introduced to a world full of new possibilities that has led her to a path of pursing research on a doctoral level thanks to a specially designed program.

Growing up in Richmond, she attended a predominantly white high school. “I learned that ODU was a minority serving institution and that was something very important to me,” said Butler. “There's a lot of diverse people both racially and ethnically diverse, and that is what brought me to ODU.” 

Butler not only settled in quickly at ODU but excelled academically. She intentionally chose to major in psychology because of what her childhood friend lived through.

“My best friend, at the time, was being abused by her father, and I was there for her during that very hard time,” said Butler. “I remember wanting to learn about why parents abuse their children, what happens once children are abused, and how that may impact their lives.” That situation sparked a passion for Butler to want to learn more about childhood trauma. “It got me thinking about how we can better help children that are experiencing this or better help parents learn discipline,” said Butler.

During her sophomore year she was accepted into the Perry Honors program, and she became curious about how to get involved in research that related to childhood trauma. Getting involved in research in the lab of ODU’s Associate Professor Kristin Heron, Ph.D. would prove to be the pathway to unlocking new opportunities.

“I started doing research in Dr. Kristin Heron’s lab, and I was just barely doing research because I was still working a part time job,” said Butler. Heron piqued Butler’s curiosity when she told her about the Monarchs Maximizing Access to Research Careers (M-MARC) program now called the Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (U-RISE). “At the time there was a pre-MARC program where sophomores could attend workshops and seminars,” said Butler. She got involved in the pre-MARC program and met Chemistry Professor and M-MARC Co-Principal Investigator Alvin Holder, Ph.D. “I met the other M-MARC students and started attending some of the workshops, and I was like, ‘oh yeah, I could definitely do this’ and still continue to do research and get more involved since I wouldn't have to work a job,” said Butler. 

She was accepted into the M-MARC program the summer before her junior year which coincided with the COVID-19 global pandemic. “I took all of my classes remotely and I still can research remotely, which was very, very unique to psychology,” said Butler. “But I really learned how to work remotely, which has really helped me, like even now, because my current job is hybrid.”  

Even though the COVID-19 global pandemic took a toll on learning, Butler and the other M-MARC students persevered. During her junior year, she went back home to Richmond and took all virtual classes at ODU. Each of the M-MARC cohorts continued to meet weekly online and stayed paired up with their research advisors. At the end of her junior year, Butler took part in a summer research experience in New York where only a handful of people were on campus. “I got to go to Stony Brook University to work with Dr. Kristin Bernard, and that was really nice because I got to do some research more geared towards my interest,” said Butler. In working with Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology Bernard, Butler studied adverse childhood experiences more in-depth.

Stony Brook University Associate Professor Bernard said, “During her 10-week visit, Lauren demonstrated remarkable curiosity, sharp thinking, and enthusiasm for research. Since that time, she has been an incredibly productive scholar and sought advanced training opportunities to enhance her readiness for conducting research at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience, and prevention. Lauren is committed to conducting translational research in partnership with marginalized communities and aims to promote diversity in science through her engagement in mentorship, teaching, and service. At this early stage of her career, she is functioning at the level of an early-stage doctoral student.”

Butler enjoyed the ways M-MARC helped to professionally develop students. “They funded us to travel and attend conferences, but a lot of the conferences at that time were virtual,” said Butler. “Going to conferences was a really good opportunity as well, because I got to learn how to present my research for the first time, so that was a very unique experience.”    

As her senior year neared completion, Butler applied to several clinical psychology programs. “I got a couple of interviews, but unfortunately didn't get accepted,” said Butler. “During that time, I started thinking about other options, whether that would be a master's degree or a post baccalaureate.” A post baccalaureate is an opportunity where a recent college undergraduate could do more research and gain experience needed to get into a doctoral program. “I wouldn’t have to pay for college again, so I started applying to post baccalaureate positions,” said Butler. “I completed an interview at my current position with the PI (principal investigator), now my advisor, and then also the current post bacs at the same time.”

Currently, Butler is doing a post baccalaureate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I am working on a longitudinal study that examines how early life experiences influence adolescent psychopathology,” said Butler. She interviews a wide variety of adolescents and their parents about their experiences. “Those interviews cover a wide range of topics, from school performance all the way to like experiences of abuse and neglect and suicide ideation,” said Butler. 

Butler is more hands on with the participants about learning about their experiences. “I am very excited about where I do research because I learned about community engagement and being very involved with communities within this field as well, especially how we can better help serve marginalized communities,” said Butler. “With research and clinical and then also this community component this is the best option for me, and it is very flexible.”

With the experiences she’s had from ODU to UNC, Butler is prepared to continue her education at the doctoral level in clinical psychology. Being a black woman in STEM, I feel inspired by the current Black women already in the field of STEM and the amazing work that they're doing,” said Butler. “It can be challenging, at times, being the only person in the room.” She is looking forward to working with populations that are historically underserved. “With my perspective of being a Black woman, I find it very important to also help serve communities that are underrepresented in science and in this field of research in general,” said Butler. I am passionate about reducing structural factors that drive the experiences of violence and adversity among individuals within marginalized communities, such as structural inequality and disparities in mental health services.”  

Butler has been accepted into several doctoral programs, which she will start in the fall of 2024, but has yet to make a final decision. She credits ODU and the M-MARC program for her success.

“ODU is amazing, and it definitely offers a lot of opportunities for underrepresented students to get involved in different things, especially with the M-MARC program, specifically for underrepresented students,” said Butler. “A lot of times we don't get these experiences at other universities, especially an experience that offers a tuition waiver and a stipend.” She would like to thank all of the leadership in the M-MARC program for their help and commitment to students.

“I would say M-MARC (now U-RISE) is such a great opportunity to not miss out on it,” said Butler. “You get to really be involved in research if that's something you're interested in. It's just a great opportunity for underrepresented students STEM.”

The opportunities afforded to Butler through the M-MARC program continue through its successor, U-RISE, currently serving eight underrepresented STEM juniors and seniors."