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International Student Achieves Goals With Undergraduate Research in Psychology

By Tiffany Molina

Immersed in the student experience by getting involved in a variety of campus activities at the University of Kentucky, Ines Elena of Madrid, Spain, is ready to add one more thing to her to-do list. Starting in fall 2017, Elena will be an undergraduate research assistant to UK psychology Professor Thomas Zentall. The UK sophomore is eager to begin her research with Zentall, as she focuses on her future goal of attending graduate school.

As a psychology and communications dual-major, Elena followed her love for Kentucky that began during her junior year of high school. “As an exchange student in Louisville, I had the opportunity to visit UK’s campus and immediately fell in love,” Elena said. She knew she wanted to pursue her dream, so she applied for and won an International Ambassador Scholarship, allowing her to complete her undergraduate studies at UK.

In the International Student Ambassador program, Elena works with prospective and incoming UK international students to ensure they have a smooth application process and know everything they need to know about UK before arriving on campus. She is also part of the International Student Leadership Team (ISLT), where she organizes events and connects with current international students to promote student success, wellness and a sense of belonging. Elena also excels as a resident advisor and next year will be tackling more responsibilities as an assistant resident director in Woodland Glen V.

Elena knew that despite being very involved on campus, she wanted to add something else to her resume — research.

“I never thought research was for me, but I knew it was something that would make me stand out when applying to grad school,” Elena said. After sending countless emails to different professors, Elena contacted Zentall, who is involved with animal behavior research.

Zentall set up a meeting with Elena to discuss the research position. “As soon as I walked through the door, he noticed my accent, and we started talking about Spain, since he had traveled there quite a few times,” Elena recalled. After breaking the ice with the conversation about Spain, Elena opened up about her aspirations in research, and how this would be her first experience with it.

Elena’s honesty and hard work paid off. Zentall offered her the position on the spot. During her assistantship, she will be observing pigeons to be able to understand abnormal behaviors in humans. “For example, why do we do things that go against our nature and logic — like spending money on lottery tickets, when we know that there is almost no chance of winning?” Elena said. Perspectives in abnormal behaviors that Elena and Zentall will study include learned behaviors, thinking, biological and unconscious processes — behaviors that try to explain why humans behave certain ways and how certain animals reflect these same behaviors.

Aside from her new research position, Elena will also work at the UK International Center as the public relations and marketing assistant and will continue to do her volunteering at Maxwell Elementary School, teaching and mentoring second grade students. She will also keep pursuing her on-campus activities with the international ambassadors, ISLT, and UK Housing and Residence Life. When asked about how she balanced all these commitments, Elena simply smiled and proudly displayed her detailed and color-coded schedule for the fall semester. 

UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: #uk4ky #seeblue