Sally Kim is in the lab. Oddly, instead of a pristine lab coat, she’s wearing a bright red apron and a white paper cap, looking more like an old-school diner waitress than a researcher. But she is indeed a researcher, and she’s dressed like this because she’s working in Professor Ashley Gearhardt’s FASTLab—a testing ground for important questions in food addiction and other problematic eating behaviors.

Although Kim is a graduate student now, she already has years of research experience under her belt, including designing, planning, and executing an entire study—featuring real human subjects—all as an undergraduate student in U-M’s Department of Psychology.

“Being involved with research really allowed me to find my place in the department,” says Kim. “When you are doing research, you have opportunities for one on one attention, for collaboration with professors doing important work, and for personalized attention.”

Kim first reached out to Prof. Gearhardt during her sophomore year, asking for an opportunity to learn about Gearhardt’s research. The professor invited her to meet, and what began as basic data entering and clerical duties quickly evolved into a mentorship that ultimately culminated with Kim’s own research project and senior thesis.

In her time as an undergraduate, Kim assisted on several important research projects in multiple psychology labs. By her senior year, she had been promoted to lab manager, where she oversaw other students and kept projects on track. That’s when Prof. Gearhardt encouraged her to pursue her very own study—one that she’d execute from start to finish.

“We decided to examine whether our decisions and attitudes toward an unhealthy food, say Oreos, would change if they were endorsed by an athlete,” says Kim.

The process of developing and executing a study was completely new to her, and although she encountered a few challenges and setbacks along the way, Kim is grateful for the experience.

“I gained a lot of knowledge from that work, including how to collaborate with many people and how to conduct a study all the way through,” Kim says. “Research is such a transferable skill. It can help you with communication, organization, and working both with others and independently.”

Today, Kim is pursuing an accelerated master’s degree in clinical psychology, and continuing to work with Prof. Gearhardt in the FASTLab.

“I’m not sure what my future career will be,” she says. “But now I know what it takes to go into academia, and I have gained skills that can be applicable to almost any field.”