Working with Assistant Dean and Professor Amy Overman, Alejandro Mejia ’24 and Paige Goldberg ’24 embarked on National Science Foundation grant-funded research into computer-use analysis just weeks after enrolling at Elon.
We’ve all been there: In the middle of writing a paper, streaming a show or just surfing the net when a pop-up tells us our device needs an update.
But what happens next? Do we choose to make the update then, schedule it for later, or close the pop-up and ignore the message? Why might one person choose to install the update and another not? What factors might influence those decisions?
Under the mentorship of Assistant Dean and Professor of Psychology Amy Overman, Paige Goldberg ‘24 and Alejandro Mejia ‘24 are part of a team of researchers at Elon and North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro working to answer those questions. The results of the National Science Foundation-funded neuroscience and cybersecurity study will help programmers understand how to maximize the number of users who follow through with necessary security updates.
“There are already millions of cyberattacks every year, and that number is growing,” Mejia said “It’s better for everyone to realize now the importance of updating their computer. This study is looking at how we can influence individuals to make updates. Is it the type of messaging or the tone in that message? Is it how long the update might take? Are people afraid updates will change their user interface?”
This semester, Mejia and Goldberg will complete a computer-use survey of young adults and older adults, analyze the results and share data with researchers at N.C. A&T. Future phases of the project will involve distributing laptops with software developed by N.C. A&T students for behavioral analysis.
Goldberg and Mejia’s involvement in high-level, innovative undergraduate research is a hallmark of the student experience at Elon. Hundreds of undergraduates complete closely mentored research projects each year. But Mejia and Goldberg are exceptional in that they embarked on the research process in their first year at Elon. They had only been on campus a few weeks before they met with Overman to begin the work — and they are two of only three first-year students Overman has ever mentored in the neuroscience lab. (The other first-year initiate, Olivia DiGiovanni ’24, joined Overman in a separate project last year.)
“It’s just really impressive what they’ve been able to accomplish,” Overman said. “They began in the middle of a pandemic when they were brand new to college, delved into the project, helped design the study, communicated with participants and held their own in meetings about the research. It’s amazing how quickly they got it. Six months before, they were in high school! I enjoy working with all levels of students, but it’s really exciting to watch their development and know they’re only sophomores.”
Just days into this fall semester, they were already re-immersed in the neuroscience and cybersecurity research they began last year. It’s clear they make a strong team, evident in their easy conversation and their ability to share tasks and new knowledge in the lab.
Mejia — an Odyssey Program scholar and computer science major from Austin, Texas — led the research this summer through a Diversity Research Fellowship award from the Scientific Research Network on Decision Neuroscience and Aging. Goldberg — a psychology major who plans to study brain injuries — is leading the project this fall.
“They began in the middle of a pandemic when they were brand new to college, delved into the project, helped design the study, communicated with participants and held their own in meetings about the research. It’s amazing how quickly they got it.”
Professor of Psychology Amy Overman
Overman’s areas of expertise include cognitive neuroscience, memory and aging. Past and ongoing research — including a current three-year, $413,933 grant from the National Institutes of Health — used MRI technology to examine brain activity patterns in individuals learning new skills and recalling information. In fall 2020, Overman was awarded a $100,000 grant from the NSF in support of research focused on cognition and cybersecurity. The grant is part of a $500,000 project led by Mohd Anwar of N.C. A&T and explores decision-making around security-related software updates, including how those decisions may be influenced by age or race.
“The connection between age and decision making hasn’t been examined much in cybersecurity before,” Overman said. The team is also working to recruit higher levels of Black and Latinx participants, filling gaps in previous cybersecurity research.
But among the reasons Overman is enthusiastic about these grant projects is that their funding broadens student access to the rich mentoring experience of undergraduate research. Though Elon can pay some students for undergraduate research during the academic year and over summers, those funds are limited.
“Some of our students experience tension between a desire to participate in research and the need to earn money to cover their expenses, such as tuition and books. By securing grants like this one and my NIH grant, I can solve this problem by offering the option to be paid researchers to the students that I am mentoring,” Overman said. “Paid researcher students receive the exact same mentoring and research experience as those who are earning academic credit, but they are no longer constrained by having to choose between conducting research and earning much-needed money.”
Though Mejia and Goldberg arrived at Elon eager to participate in research, they first had to learn how to read, interpret and apply the dense scientific verbiage of neuroscience studies.
“It was like learning a new language,” Mejia said. He described reading and annotating journal articles and studies, highlighting important or puzzling passages, noting questions and then connecting those topics with other papers. Goldberg likened Mejia’s process to a “spiderweb,” visualizing through-lines in their research and connecting them to the NSF grant project.
Overman tailors a similar scaffolded approach for all her mentees when initiating them in neuroscience research. Students keep research journals with questions, unfamiliar terms, broad connections and new information.
“Dr. Overman’s mentorship is such a blessing,” Goldberg said. “She’s so communicative, and she encourages independence in problem-solving. Now I feel like there are so many things I can do that I wouldn’t have been capable of without this experience.”
Mejia and Goldberg reached a point last spring when they were able to connect their research to other projects in the lab and to the broader world. Mejia described watching an interaction on campus and seeing the research come to life.
They would encourage other Elon students to get involved with research early. Goldberg feels like a stronger student, better prepared for future classes and more experienced in the scientific method which she plans to employ in post-graduate education. Mejia says the experience has made him more independent, improved his time management and made him a better reader and note-taker.
The study’s interdisciplinary focus — the meeting of neuroscience, psychology and computer science — has also strengthened their individual inquiry in areas they couldn’t have foreseen when they enrolled at Elon. Those connections spur their curiosity.
Goldberg has become an advocate for basic cybersecurity and is considering courses in computer science. Mejia continues to catalog the parallels and connections of the project to the broader world, sharing newfound knowledge with friends and “geeking out on neuroscience and computer science.”
“Dr. Overman’s mentorship is such a blessing. She’s so communicative, and she encourages independence in problem-solving. Now I feel like there are so many things I can do that I wouldn’t have been capable of without this experience.”
Paige Goldberg ’24
From early childhood, Mejia was always interested in computers. By high school, he was part of a competitive team of student programmers. Working in this study has illuminated areas of interest he didn’t realize he had. Growing up, Mejia and his older sister, Jocelyn — whom he credits with encouraging him to take the risk of accepting the Odyssey Program scholarship and leaving home for Elon — listened to podcasts and watched documentaries about science. Those often were about the brain. Now he sees how that early interest in our human computer is shared with his passion for programming and technology.
“Computer science connects with almost anything. When I got that, it was beautiful,” Mejia said. “Opening up that door of psychology and neuroscience, now I understand more about how our brain is so much more efficient than a computer. I think it’s awesome how the brain works. This knowledge is something I’ll hold and use wherever I go.”