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Psychology major has found UTA to be the perfect fit

All it took for Kaitlyn Riley's college career to really take off was her finding the right fit.

Riley, a standout student all her life, first enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin out of high school, but found its size and competitive atmosphere a bit more than she'd anticipated. She transferred to Tarleton State University in Stephenville for a semester, but decided the agriculture school with an enrollment of around 9,000 wasn't quite what she was looking for either.

But once she transferred to UT Arlington in the Fall of 2009, Riley knew she was in the right place. She found the atmosphere cooperative rather than competitive, and was invigorated by her professors' enthusiasm for teaching. A sophomore psychology major with an emphasis in neuroscience, she wasted no time in taking advantage of the opportunities available, including immersing herself in work as a research assistant.

"The faculty and staff that I have interacted with in the Psychology and Biology departments appear to have a genuine love for their sciences," Riley said. "Many people are under the impression that all scientists are introverted and dull, so they tend to avoid scientific studies. During lecture or conversation, I often notice a wide-eyed and fast-paced delivery style that conveys nothing less than elation and dedication. When others present their knowledge to me in such a manner, the subject matter is automatically intriguing to me because, come on, mankind is drawn to enthusiasm. I never thought I could be so fascinated by G-proteins or sodium-potassium channels, but as silly as it may seem, I am."

Riley says she has always been interested in philosophy and psychology, and in discovering the root causes of people's behavior.

"I like finding out why," she said. "It's fascinating to me to see how people react to controlled conditions. They don't always react the way you might think."

Riley, 19, is working on a project involving the behavioral assessment of the relationship between pain and memory processing in the lab of psychology associate professor Perry Fuchs.

"The project looks at the development of memories of pain, and at how subjects learn about pain," Fuchs said. "We were looking for evidence that animals learn about pain over time, and the impact pain has on memory mechanisms. We want to know how that affects us; how does it change our behavior?

"Kaitlyn is very intelligent and she has been able to devote lots of time to the project, which was important. She's done a great job and has been really impressive with the way she presented her research."

Riley and Fuchs hope that the study's results can help to develop more effective treatment methods for people suffering from chronic pain.

"The reason this study is needed is because of the way chronic pain is treated now," Riley said. "There's a tendency to just medicate them indefinitely, which leads to a whole other set of issues. Right now, there's no viable alternative."

Over the summer, Riley was named a scholar in the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. LSAMP's goal is to increase the number of degrees awarded to women, African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans by awarding scholarships and providing research opportunities. As part of the program, she presented her research from the project in Fuchs' lab first at UT Arlington in July, then at an LSAMP conference at UT El Paso in September.

Kaitlyn Riley Kaitlyn Riley

Riley was selected to present her research at the annual conference of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) in Anaheim, Calif., at the end of September. She has also been chosen to attend the second annual international Science in Society Conference in Madrid, Spain, in mid-November.

Her work has drawn interest from university recruiters, and as a result of the research abstract she submitted at the conferences, she already has numerous invitations to apply for summer research and graduate programs from prestigious schools including Stanford University and the Oregon Health and Science University.

Riley was born in Plainview, a town of about 25,000 near Lubbock in the Texas Panhandle. She has always been a high achiever academically, graduating from Plainview High School a year early at age 16, and maintaining a 4.0 average at UT Arlington. In addition to a Cognitive Neuroscience class, she is taking eight hours of Latin and an English class this semester, while also spending many hours each week working in the lab.

In her free time, when she has any, Riley enjoys painting and drawing; reading and writing fiction; engaging in friendly philosophical debates; playing classic video and arcade games as well as street hockey and skateboarding. She also admits to being something of a prankster, saying she "will never 'grow out of' the joy I get from cleverly designed practical jokes that are far more intricate and time consuming than their simple results necessitate."

Riley plans to graduate with a B.A. in Psychology and a minor in Latin in December 2012, then go on to earn master's and doctoral degrees. She said she would possibly like to work at a university where she can do research, but is keeping all of her options open. For now, she's enjoying college life and is thankful she gave UT Arlington a try.

"I was fearfully uncertain of my future following my experiences with UT Austin and Tarleton State, but I would not change a thing," she said. "I view my journey as being guided by an implicit 'treasure map' that leads me to an ultimate reward. I finally have a place to call home."