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Wealth of Experience

Myanmar native Toe Aung ’17 came to the United States a few years ago after winning a green card through a U.S. visa lottery program. The Albright psychobiology major is certainly cashing in on the opportunity. After he graduates, he will serve as a research assistant at Harvard University.

By Kelsey Rudy '16 and Hilary Bentman

Three years ago, Toe Aung ’17 won the lottery. It took a few tries, but finally they called his number.

The native of Myanmar (the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma) didn’t get an oversized check with lots of zeroes. Instead, his prize was a green card – a ticket to the United States, financial support, and the chance to study at Albright.

He spoke little English when he arrived.

But after just a few short years, the rising Albright senior, a psychobiology major and evolutionary studies minor, is making his mark in the field of evolutionary psychology.

Labeled ambitious and dedicated by his professors, Aung has been involved in numerous research projects on campus and off, has presented at academic conferences, recently had a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, and has been awarded multiple research grants.

And he has already lined up a research assistant position at Harvard University for the summer after he graduates.

“Toe has a keen sense for thinking critically about research design and analysis,” says Albright associate professor of psychology Susan Hughes, Ph.D. “He has a passion for his work and a genuine interest to learn.”

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Toe Aung '17

Evolutionary Psychology

Aung discovered his passion for evolutionary psychology while sitting in a class taught by Hughes, an expert in the field.

“I felt like all the psychology things I was learning were interconnected in that framework of evolutionary psychology,” says Aung. “It’s really important in terms of how people reproduce and pass on genes and traits.”

Evolutionary psychology attempts to understand the human mind using the principles of evolutionary biology, including adaptation and natural selection.

Hughes says her student is conducting important work in the field, addressing understudied topics. “We hope that the findings from these studies will spark future research on these topics,” she says.

Aung is conducting simultaneous research projects this summer, and loving every minute of it. “I am having a busy but blissful summer,” he says.

Aung and Hughes were awarded a $5,000 Psi Chi/Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) Summer Research grant to investigate facial symmetry and perceived attractiveness in people. Only two grants under the CUR category are awarded annually to students of Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology, and their faculty mentors.

“The PsiChi/CUR grant further nourishes my passion and interest for research,” says Aung. “I am also excited that the grant allows me to continue the ongoing collaboration with Dr. Hughes.”

Aung is also conducting an Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE) project this summer with Hughes, examining the so-called Coolidge effect in humans. Observed most frequently with male mammals, this is a phenomenon in which a mammal exhibits renewed sexual interest when a new partner comes along.

Research-Driven

As an aspiring professor and researcher, Aung is well on his way.

In the spring, he had an essay published in the Journal of Evolutionary Studies Consortium that argues that alcohol consumption, binge drinking, and other behaviors, especially among college students who experience intrasexual competition, can be better understood from an evolutionary perspective as it relates to mating strategies and mate selection.

“Although the mating mind is not the only driving force that compels people to drink, the perspectives could be helpful in addressing sociological issues associated with alcohol,” says Aung.

Last summer, Aung took part in the eight-week Undergraduate Research into the Social Psychophysiology of Compassion program at Northern Arizona University. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the program provided Aung with hands-on experience with electroencephalogram (EEG).

"Toe has a keen sense for thinking critically about research design and analysis. He has a passion for his work and a genuine interest to learn."

~ Susan Hughes, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology

Aung’s research hasn’t been confined to the field of psychology. Over winter interim 2016, he and associate professor of religious studies Victor Forte, Ph.D., conducted an ACRE project to study how the belief in determinism influences the propensity to forgive.

“I wanted to work on a collaborative project with Toe because of his deep interest in the human condition, an interest that was clearly apparent in the First Year Seminar and Buddhism courses he has taken with me,” says Forte.

Determinism is the philosophical belief that all events are caused by preceding events or occurrences. Some have interpreted this concept to mean that individuals lack free will. Aung argued that there is something good about belief in determinism because it implies that an individual lacking free will cannot be held morally responsible for their actions, thus making it easier to forgive him.

When not conducting research, Aung is busy on campus as a teaching assistant, peer tutor and even guest lecturer.

During spring semester, assistant professor of psychology Justin Couchman, Ph.D., invited Aung to present a lecture in his animal behavior and cognition course. Aung brought along his own betta fish to demonstrate behaviors to the class.

“Needless to say, it was one of the most informative and fun things we’ve done during the semester,” says Couchman.

Far from Home

Aung’s success is that much more impressive considering the road he traveled to Albright.

Three years ago, after several attempts, Aung finally received a green card to come to America via the U.S. Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, a lottery that awards visas to up to 50,000 people annually from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. 

“When I got here it was difficult because I knew what I wanted to say but I couldn’t express it,” he says. “It helped going to classes and having friends who speak English. Over time I caught up with my thoughts and was able to speak more clearly.”

Though not a native speaker, Aung’s writing is top-notch, says Hughes. “I have seen Toe’s skillsets as an independent researcher and scientific writer develop over his undergraduate career.”

Being far from home and family, and having to adjust to a new culture and language, have certainly presented Aung with challenges, but also with opportunities.

“That’s the good thing about it, because I don’t have a house here and my family is not here, so I can apply anywhere for internships or graduate programs,” he says.

After graduation, Aung will head to Cambridge, Mass., where he will work as a research assistant in the Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory at Harvard. The lab focuses on social cooperation and cognitive adaptations.

“I am grateful to my family for all their emotional and financial support,” says Aung. “For all my academic achievements, I am also indebted to my professors for their guidance and advice."


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