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Honors Directed Study

During the spring semester of 2020, I participated in an honors directed study. Kelsey Swegle and I set up a long-term study, looking into the effects of stress on volunteers.

The previous semester, Dr. Pederson from the sociology department had started a similar study. Along with a few Longwood students, Dr. Pederson took saliva samples from volunteers at a local barn, Heartland Horse Heroes. This was how I got involved in the study; I had been volunteering at Heartland Horse Heroes the entire fall semester. After collecting the samples, the team analyzed the saliva samples to look for cortisol, alpha-amylase, and DHEA levels, all different stress markers. I was lucky enough to be able to be a small part in the analyzation of the stress hormones. I worked with Dr. Franssen and a few Longwood students to dilute and test the saliva samples.

Initially, Kelsey and I were planning on testing the saliva samples, both in a school setting and at the Heartland Horse Heroes barn, of three graduate students who were working with a group of special needs kids. However, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we were unable to acquire the samples we needed. Near the end of the spring 2020 semester, Kelsey and I created a poster for the spring research day. We created the poster as a set-up for a future study. In our poster, we had a section for future research possibilities, where we mentioned that we would have really liked to test different kinds of volunteering against normal stress hormone levels.

While we were not able to complete the study as much as we would have liked, there were still some very interesting things that I was able to learn. Before starting the study, we all read a handful of scientific and sociological articles. The first article I read was a scientific article, and it took me hours to get through it, as I did not understand much of the vocabulary. However, after finishing the initial article, I was able to better understand the rest of them. Through my readings, I learned quite a bit about the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the locus coeruleus sympathetic adrenal medullary axis (LC-SAM), two different stress systems in our bodies, as well as cortisol, alpha-amylase, and DHEA, all different stress hormone biomarkers.

This study would be highly intriguing to spend some years researching. Volunteering has always been a big part of my life, and I think stress definitely plays a part in many peoples’ lives as well. There have been many scientific studies published concerning stress; however, understanding the benefits and drawbacks of volunteering would be a great leap in sociological studies. Sociology and psychology have always been rather interesting to me, and going into a teaching profession, understanding the way people work is very important.

(The Effect of Volunteering on Stress Hormone Levels of Graduate Student Volunteers, Kelsey Swegle and Kyra Valovick, 5.2020)