How an Ohio State undergrad turned a research idea into a published study

When Farah Hasan was a sophomore at The Ohio State University, she noticed something in her social media posts that struck her as interesting.

She saw people posting about their anxiety issues, and how they were dealing with them – and implying that it was normal to have an anxiety disorder.

While it seemed good to be upfront about mental health issues, Hasan wondered if there could be unexpected negative effects of posts that normalized anxiety disorders: Could it lead some people to believe they had an anxiety disorder when they really just had normal anxiety?

For most undergraduates, that would have been nothing but an idle thought that would soon be forgotten. But for Hasan, it led to her being lead author of an academic study that was published in the Journal of Health Communication.

“It definitely wasn’t something I expected to do as an undergraduate student,” said Hasan, who is now a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“But it was amazing to have that opportunity, and to actually publish a research study.”

Hasan said it was all the result of the mentoring and encouragement she received from Melissa Foster, a senior lecturer in the School of Communication at Ohio State.

“It was great having Melissa there to encourage my creativity.  I would have never even thought that this could have become a study without her,” she said.

Foster said Hasan was the ideal undergraduate student to do academic research.

“Farah was just very motivated and she was interested in the idea that you could actually do research to answer questions in your life,” Foster said.  “She likes doing research for the right reasons.”

It all started when Hasan was a sophomore and searching for research opportunities on Ohio State’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry website.

Hasan was a biology major, but she was interested in a listing from Foster, who was looking for an undergraduate to work for course credit on a communication-related research project unrelated to the anxiety study. Hasan applied.

Foster selected Hasan and was impressed by her work on the project that semester and knew Hasan had a talent for doing research. So Foster gave her an opportunity to do more.

“I told Farah to just go through her daily life and look for things that struck her as interesting or weird, something that she didn’t have an answer to,” Foster said.  “I told her to talk to me about it and maybe we could turn it into a real research study.”

Hasan took the offer to heart. “I really love the fact that she had me just go out and question things in everyday life,” she said.

And when Hasan started seeing the social media posts that seemed to normalize anxiety, she brought up the idea of studying that issue.

Foster said she liked the idea and, when she checked, found that no one else had studied that specific issue before the way they would like to. They had a viable research project.

Then came the work of designing the study, getting it approved, collecting and interpreting the data, writing the results, and getting the paper peer reviewed by scientists to publish in a journal.

That took the rest of Hasan’s undergraduate career to finish.

In the end, they published the paper: “Normalizing Anxiety on Social Media Increases Self-Diagnosis of Anxiety: The Mediating Effect of Identification (But Not Stigma).”

Overall, the study found that when participants read social media posts that made severe anxiety seem normal, they were more likely to view their own anxiety as a disorder.

“Even though other research has found there are some benefits of normalizing anxiety, what we found is that social media posts that normalize anxiety could also help lead some people to be more likely to consider their own anxiety disordered or to think they will have an anxiety disorder in the future,” Hasan said.

Hasan said working on the project was a key part of her undergraduate experience at Ohio State – and having the study published was an unexpected bonus.

Foster said working on this study was important for her, too. For one, it showed how the experiences of undergraduates could inform the work of researchers, especially those in the social sciences.

“I’m not on social media like undergraduate students are, and I wasn’t seeing those posts on anxiety.  It was not on my radar, and I would not come up with this study idea on my own,” Foster said.

“I feel that undergraduate students offer this whole range of voices and experiences that we as scientists can miss out on if we don’t pay attention.”

And she would love to have other students follow the example of Hasan.

“I hope that other undergraduate students hear about what Farah did and that could be an inspiration to them. I hope that they approach one of their professors and say, ‘here’s this weird thing I noticed, could that be a research study?’”

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