Children's Hospital Research Assistant

Saul Urbina ‘19

Concentration: Psychology
House: Dunster
Employer: Boston Children’s Hospital

Some students look to align their student employment with their academic interests, a route that Saul worked out as a research assistant for the Nelson Lab in Boston Children’s Hospital. As a psychology concentrator, Saul had always been interested in people and their stories. “I grew up watching loads of movies and TV shows and I really liked talking about how different stories and experiences could have led to completely different endings if it weren’t for certain plot points. Eventually, I realized that these are questions developmental neuroscientists and developmental psychologists ask all the time. What’s a person’s journey? Where could it lead? What makes it all tick?”

The Nelson Lab in Boston Children’s Hospital conducts research on infant and child development, particularly focusing on how a child’s experience can shape the developing brain. Saul is specifically working on a study internally called the Toxic Stress Network, also known as the Healthy Baby Study to participating families. “It’s a study on resilience that explores why some kids, even though they go through so much difficulty with their family, are doing great while others are not. We are trying to see what the resilient kids are doing to find out if we can get other people to do the same things. We also look at the effects of different parenting styles.”

One of the main reasons that Saul was actually able to get started with this lab was the Faculty Aide Program (FAP). Consisting of just a simple application process, FAP is a source of funding available to professors and their students to help make research positions financially feasible for both parties. Saul had planned on continuing at his previous job because he still needed some sort of income, so he told the lab coordinator that he couldn’t work as many hours if he would have to work as a volunteer at the lab. “My lab coordinator then replied, ‘Hey, I applied for [FAP funding], and all you have to do is fill out your hours on this spreadsheet to get paid for your work in the lab.’ I’m really thankful that my lab coordinator went out of her way to find it and make it work.”

After working out funding for his position through FAP, Saul got started with his work, helping to run the various tests on the subjects. “My main job is to make sure that the family and children are comfortable, while I direct their attention to the stimuli that we present.” Saul talks about how he enjoys the frequent interactions that he has with the families. “When you think of labs, you think of being in all-white rooms all day. I knew I didn’t want to do that, which is why I joined a lab that interacted with a lot with families and kids. I was just so surprised with the extent of our interactions. It’s really amazing.”

Another aspect of his job that he really appreciates is the fact that this job is off-campus. “I enjoy working with people outside the Harvard community. I actually really, really like that my job is at Boston Children’s Hospital, since it forces me to get out of Harvard, and Longwood is so different from Harvard Square. I’ve gotten to know people within the Greater Boston Area communities, talking to them about how they’re doing every couple months during their lab sessions.”

Saul's employment as a reseach assistant aligned particularly well with his academic pursuits. In fact, he plans to base his senior thesis off his research at the Nelson Lab, inspired by his hands-on experience working with these families and their children. As he continues his work at Boston Children's Hospital, he'll undoubtedly have the opportunity to grow academically, all while discovering the stories of the people he works with.