When psychology students Sandra Alvarado and Chela Willey began conducting their original research in evolved visual mechanisms at Cal State San Marcos with Professor Russell Jackson, they never expected it would land them in front of an audience of hundreds of evolutionary scientists from around the world.

With some financial help from the Office of Graduate Studies and Research and the Office of Biomedical Research and Training, Alvarado and Willey were able to make the 6,000-mile trip to Montpellier, France, to share their findings with leading investigators at the 23rd annual Human Behavior and Evolution Society conference. The annual five-day conference attracted a diverse group of interdisciplinary researchers including anthropologists, economists, biologists, physicians and humanities scholars. While it is not uncommon for graduate students to share poster presentations at the conference, it is rare for graduate students, and even rarer for undergraduates, to give oral presentations, explained Willey.

“It was such an honor to be able to present at the conference,” she said. “In research you spend so much time and energy theorizing, collecting data, and analyzing results that you don’t really get to experience the full satisfaction of research until you’re able to share your findings. Communicating your ideas and presenting your work to people is truly one of the most rewarding experiences in research.”

Willey, a graduate student, and Alvarado, an undergraduate, shared their findings at the five-day international conference alongside top scientists whose work addresses critical social and biological issues from the examination of breast cancer risk, to the analysis of human propensity toward social stratification, as well as research that sheds light on better understanding human behavior.

“The conference featured some of the greatest minds in the social sciences,” said Willey. “It was such a treat to hear about the research that these scientists have yet to publish or present anywhere else.”

Showcasing her own recent study, the 23-year-old graduate student presented her research which found evidence that humans overestimate horizontal distances when an environmental falling risk is present. She explained that existing research on vertical perceptions has shown that humans tend to exaggerate the distance of vertical surfaces when a visible falling risk is perceived. For example, a person will overestimate a vertical distance when standing on a ledge looking down than if standing at the bottom of the ledge looking up. However, prior to Willey’s experiments, no research had been published on whether perceived falling risks affect horizontal judgments in distance.

Willey’s research revealed that as the potential for injury increased so did the overestimation of the horizontal distance, which she said she found particularly interesting since the experiments utilized commonly navigated surfaces like the edge of a sidewalk, stairs, and a small pedestrian bridge. When those perceived falling risks were out of sight, research participants were able to more accurately judge the same horizontal distance.

“At conferences like the one hosted by the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, it is amazing to hear and discuss the similarities as well as the differences in perspectives, problems and research questions addressed by scientists and scholars from different backgrounds and cultures,” she added.

Willey’s intrigue with studying phenomena that occur across the human species regardless of culture and nationality is shared with fellow CSUSM student Sandra Alvarado, who joined Willey as an oral presenter at the conference.

“Evolutionary research is fascinating to me because we all have these biases that are innate to our species, including how we perceive the environment around us,” shared the 24-year-old senior psychology student.

Alvarado explained that one of the most fundamental human behaviors is that of conducting a visual search of the environment, which involves discerning and filtering relevant visual information. Building upon that concept, Alvarado’s research tested to see if evolutionarily relevant stimuli would be processed more efficiently than evolutionarily novel items. She also theorized that since animate objects, such as humans and other animals, pose a potentially significant threat to humans, those objects would be perceived quicker than one that posed little threat. Her data, which evaluated the visual responses of 83 research participants, confirmed her hypotheses.

“The results of our research further validate that we’re not good at multitasking,” she said, concluding that the human brain is better attuned at localizing stimuli of persistent importance over evolutionary time.

For Alvarado and Willey, the experience of articulating their discoveries at the conference and contributing new empirical knowledge to the field of evolutionary theory felt like a rock-star moment in research.

“Growing up and even during my first few years of college, I never thought I was good at science,” Alvarado said. “But that all changed when I came to CSUSM and discovered how empowering research could be. I encourage every student to get involved in research and explore their field of interest – you just never know where research will take you.”

For Alvarado and Willey, the experience of articulating their discoveries at the conference and contributing new empirical knowledge to the field of evolutionary theory felt like a rock-star moment in research.