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Breaking Misconceptions About Research

Discover one Wildcat’s not-so-traditional, non-STEM research project and explore opportunities to find one of your own.

Is research only for hardcore STEM students surrounded by frothing beakers and glowing test tubes? Meet a Wildcat who shows that the University of Arizona offers research opportunities that go beyond the usual lab experience – and, the expectation that only the experienced need apply. 

Meet Mia

Mia Hickey

College: W.A. Franke Honors College

Major / Minors: Psychology; Minors / Business Administration & Environmental Science

Class of: 2024 

Hometown: Flagstaff, AZ

Finding Her Project

Through a mentorship course (PSY 396H), required for students in the Psychology Honors program, Mia was introduced to the Arizona Canine Cognition Center (ACCC). ACCC supports an international consortium called ManyDogs, which is designed to improve the field of canine research through larger data samples, collaborative research, and replicable studies.

At first, Mia was intimidated by the thought of doing the research thesis necessary to graduate with honors. She was worried about the commitment it would take and her lack of experience. But all that changed when she found the right opportunity and support. “Going into college, I was sure my thesis research would be the most challenging thing I’d have to do, but I can now say it was the most exciting and rewarding thing I’ve had the privilege of doing.”

A meeting with the director of the ACCC – University of Arizona Associate Professor Dr. McLean – led to her working as a research assistant at the center before deciding on a project to show how dogs respond to pointing gestures and how engagement and trainability play a role.

“I was worried about not being able to find a subject I was passionate about and anticipated a lot of heavy math and science with a big-time commitment. When I saw how broad the range of research opportunities were (in honors and the university at large) I got more excited and was ecstatic when I found out I could research dog cognition.”

Having Fun – With a Purpose 

Were you able to interact with dogs, or were you working strictly with data? 

“I got to be one of the experimenters, which meant the majority of my time in the lab was spent handling and testing dogs, which I absolutely loved because we got to play with them, too!”  

What did you want to achieve with your work–who will benefit? 

“We hoped that our findings would improve understanding of canine cognition and how humans and dogs have evolved alongside one another in a unique way.” According to Mia, this understanding could help people recognize traits in their furry companions that make them better suited to particular lifestyles or, in the case of working dogs, types of jobs. So, while the research was primarily all about the science Mia also describes it as having been “deeply related to animal welfare and human-animal interaction.”

Mia, who has always loved dogs and all animals for as long as she can remember, was interested in studying human-animal interaction before beginning her research. And grew eager to understand the role engagement plays “because I know I personally perform much better when I’m engaged in a task as do other people, so I was curious how this might compare to dogs.” 

Will this research lead to what’s next for you? 

Having successfully presented her honors thesis, ManyDogs 1: Effect of Canine Engagement on Performance in a Point-Following Task, this past spring, Mia plans to continue working with animals and follow the pathways her research has opened up for her in the field of animal science. “I’d like to stay involved with ACCC’s research and the international consortium ManyDogs. I hope to pursue a career in animal behavior research and training, especially with horses and dogs.”

What advice do you have for Wildcats interested in research?

“Don’t put yourself in a box! You may have prior ideas about academic research that make you apprehensive going in. I was initially intimidated by the process and worried about the commitment to a pursuit I had no experience with. However, I quickly learned that there is something for everyone, and you can always find something you’re interested in even if you had no idea it was something you can study. You have a role to play in what you study, and it is so empowering.”

Who supported you throughout the project?

“I’d like to acknowledge my mentor, Dr. Evan McLean, for his incredible guidance during my research process. He has been very gracious and so exciting to learn from. I’d also like to acknowledge Gitanjali Gnanadesikan, the graduate student who guided my thesis process from start to finish and who has an inspiring work ethic and dedication to the field of animal cognition.”

Outside-the-Box Opportunities 

Why wait? Explore these resources to find undergraduate research opportunities at Arizona that are as unique as you are.

  • Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) matches you with longer-term faculty-lead team projects. Which means you can dig deeper and discover more. Want an example?  StellarScape is a recent, ongoing, VIP, multimedia project that brings dancers, astronomers, and visual effects artists together with awe-inspiring results and unique research opportunites.
  • Ever wonder how policies are made – what works, what doesn't, and why? Arizona Policy Lab can help you land a not-so-typical research project related to law, politics, government, and more. Opportunities for sophomores to seniors range from apprenticeships for credit, paid fellowships, to earning co-authoring credit on published research articles.

Arizona offers a treasure trove of searchable research opportunities and faculty mentors, plus application tipscourse recommendations, and even an undergraduate research newsletter, so you won't miss the right opportunity when it comes along. What else would you expect from one of the country's top R1 research institutions?

Getting Started in Research

Start with First Steps to get a feel for the process. Next check out The Road to Research as an Undergrad, a quick start guide to adding research to your resume. Finally, if Mia’s research in support of her honors thesis intrigued you, read Why Honors Is Worth It to learn about the benefits of becoming a Franke Honors Wildcat.

Have questions? Talk it out with an Undergraduate Research Ambassador and check out the answers to these frequently asked questions


Do Research, Be a Wildcat



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