One undergrad researcher powers through the pandemic

The unusual circumstances brought on by COVID-19 forced Lana Prieur, a junior in the School of Arts & Sciences, to pivot her approach to research—and sparked new connections in the process.

When the country went on lockdown due to COVID-19, Lana Prieur knew her research would need a reboot.

Before the pandemic, Prieur, a junior psychology major in the School of Arts & Sciences, had planned multiple sessions of in-person group interactions, complete with EKG, EEG, and galvanic skin measurements for her research in the labs of Penn Integrates Knowledge professor Michael Platt.

Lana Prieur
Lana Prieur, an undergraduate in the School of Arts & Sciences. 

Prieur is a foil fencer on the women’s fencing team, and for six-and-a-half years, a volunteer with Special Olympics. Based on her experience, Prieur believed that spectator and teammate enthusiasm boosted athletic performance. Originally, she had set out to see whether personality traits could be transmitted, perhaps from spectators and teammates, through physiological “synchrony,” or the coordination of physiological rhythms such as heart rate, between individuals.

But measuring synchrony, which has been associated with increased performance, required in-person testing with lab equipment. When Prieur realized the pandemic had rendered such experiments impossible, she began looking for alternative approaches and contacted her supervisor, Scott Rennie, a postdoctoral researcher in the Platt Labs.

Rennie shared a position paper from The Lancet, which proposed research priorities during the COVID lockdowns, citing the widespread mental health impacts from prolonged isolation, and emphasizing the urgency of gathering data so that researchers, today and in the future, could analyze the costs and benefits of lockdown. Realizing that her work needed to accelerate, Prieur pivoted to online testing, focusing more on social decision-making and collecting mental health measures. 

“Pivoting to a virtual test was challenging until I changed my plans; once I became flexible, there were fewer obstacles,” Prieur explains. “The lesson I learned from COVID is that things happen and plans need to adapt, but we don’t stop moving forward.” 

Prieur’s love of research started when she surveyed her high school to analyze low community service participation. After she published her results in the school newspaper, the school acted to increase outreach and awareness of local opportunities. As an incoming freshman, Prieur was invited to join Penn’s University Scholars Program (UScholars) at the Center for Undergraduate Research Fellowships. The program provides support, mentorship, and funding for curiosity- and passion-based long-term, independent undergraduate research. 

“Harriet Joseph, the retired UScholars Director, started me off right away and helped me find my direction,” Prieur says. “As an athlete, I had always wondered about the connection between spectators, teammates, and individual athletes.” 

In her freshman year, Prieur’s UScholars research advisor, Emeritus Professor of Biology Gregory Guild, encouraged her to locate a research lab. Prieur landed in the lab of Platt, who directs the Wharton Neuroscience Initiative.

“We’ve been doing important work on group interactions, so Lana’s interest in athletic team dynamics was a good fit,” Platt says. “She’s made great progress and is a good example of how Penn undergraduates can do important, self-directed research while contributing to our broader program. She’s also warm-hearted and inspiring and even gave my youngest son Tycho—a budding fencer—a book on the sport.” 

Rennie has been investigating physiological synchronization on the Penn rowing team and has found that synchrony increases the sense of flow for team members. As a result, team performance improved. Prieur dove into the work with Rennie, who pointed her to another synchrony study in Spain, where researchers identified physiological synchrony between firewalkers and spectators. “I was still interested to know why I fence better when my teammates cheer for me,” Prieur says, “and the Spanish study showed that synchrony could occur between spectators and participants.”  

Prieur also reviewed the work of Angela Duckworth, co-director of the Behavioral Change for Good Initiative and Wharton People Analytics, who uses the term “grit” to describe the tendency to sustain interest and effort toward long-term goals. Prieur wondered whether a personality trait, such as grit, could also factor into the boost experienced from teammates and spectators. Duckworth supported Prieur’s experiment design by letting her sit in on presentations in her research lab.

“COVID prevented a lot of my summer plans: my research, hospice volunteer work, and I couldn’t go anywhere at all because I shelter with an immunocompromised family member. But I had already found a diverse group of people at Penn with similar interests. With so many inputs from so many different directions, there was always a way forward,” Prieur explains. “I enrolled study participants from my brothers at Phi Delta Epsilon, a tight-knit space where it was easy to find 16 friends. I even did video dance challenges with West Philly Swingers,” Penn’s student dance group where Prieur serves as an officer. 

The work is ongoing. Rennie is studying how group behavior and experiences differ in real-world interactions versus virtual ones through software like Zoom. Prieur’s smaller study narrows the focus to the effect of personality type on group decision-making among subsets of the large friend group that she assembled during quarantine. Both Prieur and Rennie will collect data as volunteers engage in a hidden-profile task (HPT). In an hidden-profile task, different information is given to group members who must share what they know in order to make the best decision. Researchers study when, how, and why participants share their unique information with the group.

Prieur led a team involving different research groups and schools, including people across the country to design HPTs. Veronica Fenton, a senior in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, and Aisha Mohammed, a senior at the University of San Francisco, worked with Prieur to create numerous well-calibrated HPTs for her and Rennie’s studies. 

“Lana took the hidden profile task, and, with her team, redesigned and validated it as a new online experimental paradigm,” Rennie explains. “Now that we are spending more time working remotely, understanding how this impacts our experience and group performance is crucial. Lana has been pivotal in developing a new and effective tool to study these important questions, one that’s already being used by other members of the Platt Labs.”

While the pandemic temporarily paused in-person research at Penn, the University’s vast research enterprise is reopening in phases. Guild says watching that unfold has been critical to Prieur’s development as a researcher. “Lana’s research hasn’t slowed down for the pandemic at all. She actually identified new opportunities,” Guild says. “[Lana] has really opened her eyes in terms of practical experience and is transitioning from life as a student to life as a real-world researcher.”

Prieur says she hopes the Penn community can continue to interact closely, despite the challenges of virtual classes. “The whole experience at Penn has been a story about following my interests and finding people who are excited by similar things. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people at Penn that you don’t know,” she says. “Everyone wants to help point you in the right direction.”