Trio of Studies Aim to Understand Effects of COVID-19

Alma College students explore psychological reactions to pandemic

From left, Alma College students Blake Jonassen, Abbey Killian and Zach Jandereski gather in assi... From left, Alma College students Blake Jonassen, Abbey Killian and Zach Jandereski gather in assistant professor Mark Mills' class. The trio are studying the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Michael WojcikALMA — Communications and public health officials have worked for the past six months on different ways to educate people on the dangers of COVID-19, including coming up with marketing plans to make mitigation strategies sound appealing to various audiences.

In the future, Zach Jandereski may be able to help them. The Alma College senior from Bad Axe is taking part in an independent study under psychology assistant professor Mark Mills to explore how a person’s political leanings may influence their feelings on wearing face coverings in public, and how to achieve broader compliance with healthcare initiatives.

Jandereski isn’t alone among Alma students studying COVID-19. Juniors Blake Jonassen, of Muskegon, and Abbey Killian, of Traverse City, are both pursuing research projects through the college’s e-STEM CORE program that involve psychological reactions to the pandemic and the reasons why they occur.

“It’s a unique time,” Mills said. “When we do research, we hope to capitalize on these sorts of worldly events, which provide avenues to exploring how people process them. You can’t build that in a lab. You certainly don’t hope for this kind of thing to happen, but you’re glad that these students are taking the opportunity when it presents itself.”

Jandereski is in support of rules mandating face coverings at Alma and other institutions. The science is clear about the benefits of wearing a face covering, he said, and he doesn’t want himself or others to get sick.

That’s why Jandereski, a psychology and business administration major, decided he would pursue his project, which is dedicated to increasing compliance with face covering mandates.

Inspired by symbols of popular political and social movements, like Uncle Sam and the LGBT pride flag, Jandereski believes that people may be swayed to wear face coverings or not based on who is telling them.

“Simply telling people to wear a mask doesn’t always have a desirable effect. The question is why,” Jandereski said. “I think the leading hypothesis is that it’s either consistent with your ideology or it’s inconsistent. If we can create a sign that is consistent with people’s world views, in some manner, and attach that to wearing a mask, they may be more likely to comply.”

Jandereski set up a table outside the Alma College Library, with signs to promote face coverings using icons broadly appreciated by the left and right wings of American political thought. He then surveyed random students entering the library on their reaction to the signs, their political preferences, and whether or not they were wearing a face covering.

“It feels like the kind of project that might help with mask compliance,” Jandereski said. “I hope it works.”

Killian, a biology major, is working with Jonasson, a psychology major, on two projects with a similar focus.

Various aspects of the pandemic — wearing face coverings, social distancing, the possibility of contracting COVID-19 — exacerbated negative feelings for many people, Killian said. As someone who is interested in pursuing a career in genetic science, she believes the root of those feelings may lie in pre-disposed personality traits, determined by a person’s genes.

Killian is taking genetic samples from up to 200 of her classmates at Alma — likely a swab on the inside of their cheek — and testing the samples to see where they land on the “Big Five” personality traits, including openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism. From there, Killian said, she’ll question the students to see how they reacted to the pandemic.

Alma College junior Abbey Killian, a biology major from Traverse City, is studying genetics and t... Alma College junior Abbey Killian, a biology major from Traverse City, is studying genetics and their relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.The goal is to try to draw a link between their responses and their genetic profile, she said.

“There are a lot of ways this could go, which is what makes it a really exciting project,” Killian said. “For example, you may think someone who suffers from anxiety would handle the pandemic worse than someone who doesn’t. But during these times, that person may be more used to dealing with anxiety than someone who doesn’t have anxiety. I’m looking forward to doing the research.”

Jonasson is taking a similar track by testing participants based on their pre-existing personality traits. Instead of using their genetic material, he’ll be looking at their grade point averages, both before and after the pandemic. He’s interested in knowing if negative feelings create a change in a student’s GPA.

If so, he said, it could determine whether anxiety caused by COVID-19 is similar to a phobia, or some other type of condition.

“I find this personally interesting because of how anxious I was, especially at the beginning of the pandemic,” Jonasson said. “I actually had to step away from a lot of social media because it felt overwhelming. Since I was affected, I assume others might have been. That’s why we do these tests — to test those assumptions.”

Mills said the research will likely be concluded in the spring and then presented at different conferences. In the meantime, he said, it’s a great chance and opportunity for undergraduate students to learn by doing.

“The currency of higher ed is research. If you’re not doing research, you’re not moving up in higher ed,” Mills said. “I would definitely say Alma stands out in terms of giving students the resources they need in order to do the research that is necessary to pursue graduate programs in the future.”

Story published on October 06, 2020