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Stephen Braren

College: Hunter College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2016

Working on Stress Relief

If you could control stress, would you learn more effectively?

That's the nub of the project that Stephen Braren (LaGuardia Community College, '13, Hunter College, '16) will pursue in doctoral research funded by a 2016 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, which provides $138,000 over three years.

"My interests lie in better understanding learning processes and their implications for education. My NSF proposal looks at how the ability to control a stressor affects learning processes in youth living in poverty," he says. Braren intends to enroll in the developmental psychology doctoral program at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development to work in professor Clancy Blair's Neuroscience and Education Laboratory.

He already conducts research at NYU with Liz Phelps, the Julius Silver Professor of Psychology and Neural Science, under a two-year BP-ENDURE fellowship funded by the National Institutes of Health. Administered by Hunter College, that fellowship is a collaboration with NYU, Brown University, the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt University; it involves academic-year research at Hunter and NYU, as well as summer research at a partner institution.

Studying with Hunter professor Peter Serrano last year, Braren probed the biological impacts of stress on learning and memory in mice at the molecular and cellular levels. His doctoral research will engage human subjects. "Participants will play a computer-based task, a game where they move an object around a patterned grid. If they fail to navigate it successfully, they receive a mild electric shock. Hypothetically, if they learn to control the stressor and avoid the shock, then they may perform better on a subsequent learning test."

He says, "This could lead to interventions or programs that specifically focus on classroom stress that would improve learning outcomes."

Braren took a roundabout path to higher education. He grew up in Nashville, Tenn., and enrolled at a Chicago college in 1999. He dropped out after two years of uncommitted study to sing and play guitar in rock, punk, and country bands. "There were many different projects, some more successful than others, a lot of recording, touring across the country and in Europe, and working dead-end jobs trying to get by. Struggling as an artist left me unfulfilled ultimately," he says.

"I always knew I wanted to pursue education again." He eventually found his way to LaGuardia Community College, "the most diverse school I had been to. It was fantastic," and soon he was on his way.