Spotlight Iowa City: The sting of communication


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She’s always loved watching people.

As an undergraduate on the historic La Salle University campus in Philadelphia, UI communications Assistant Professor Rachel McLaren didn’t know what to major in. She knew her interests, though.

“I’ve always been fascinated by people,” she said from across her tidy desk in her Becker Communication Studies Building office. “I couldn’t believe people studied it.”

Now, with bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a Ph.D. (all in communication), McLaren is tightening the focus of her research — at age 28.

Since arriving in Iowa around a year and a half ago, the researcher has begun investigating in relatively uncharted territory, studying communication between parents and adolescents, particularly honing in on hurtful messages and how family members resolve past incidents of being hurt.

But to realize any sort of conclusions, she needs the real people and scene to study.

She has both. Participants, initially solicited with an e-mail that garnered 50 replies in the first hour, fill out a survey so McLaren can collect background data. Then, the parent and child — 13 to 17 years old — discuss a scenario when one had said something that hurt the other. Essentially, McLaren wants to recreate the event.

After the recorded discussion takes place, she and the participants watch and reflect on feelings, thoughts, and comments. This is meant to build an understanding between the two parties.

“Hurt is a blend of sadness and fear,” McLaren said. “We want to see how people come to a joint understanding of this.”

To make it as realistic as possible, she uses an interactive lab, one part control room, one part mock living room furnished with a couch, pictures, a computer desk, and three small but visible video cameras — the closest the room becomes to appearing like a lab. It took a few months to get it all together.

Such a setup wasn’t just sitting at the UI when McLaren got here. She had left behind a similarly interactive lab at Penn State. So the Maryland native applied for a grant in February from the UI’s Office of the Vice President for Research’s internal funding initiatives, a program designed to, in part, give money to researchers in any “scholarly endeavor,” according to its website. She got one for $25,000, covering equipment and the cost of running the study.

Research assistant and UI senior Brooke Duval has been helping McLaren with her research.

“I really enjoyed being around Rachel,” said Duval, who began working with McLaren in August but has known her for about a year; Duval had McLaren as a teacher during her junior year at the UI. “I thought she was an awesome teacher.”

McLaren’s interest in this field stems from her first undergraduate interpersonal-communication class. As a junior, she decided to go to graduate school, which led her to Penn State. Her focus and hard work have allowed her to reach where she is at a young age. This has created some advantages, she said.

“I have many years ahead of me to continue pursuing the questions that interest and excite me,” she said.

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