Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Published paper, national honours for StFX psychology student

July 12th, 2017
Breanna O’Handley

When it comes to academic achievement, StFX student Breanna O’Handley of Guysborough, NS, has much to celebrate.

Ms. O’Handley, who graduated with a BSc honours in psychology in May and plans to return to StFX to continue to research with psychology professors Dr. Karen Blair and Dr. Tara Callaghan before applying to graduate schools, is first author on a publication based on her honours thesis research. She received the news just before graduating and the paper, “What do two men kissing and a bucket of maggots have in common? Indistinguishable alpha amylase responses to photo slideshows in heterosexual men,” was published online in Psychology and Sexuality on May 22.

Not long after, she also received a national honour for that same research from the Canadian Psychological Association conference, receiving the Henry Minton Award for Best Student Paper, given to a student who does an oral presentation within the sexual orientation and gender identity section of the conference.

Her thesis was based on data previously collected by Dr. Blair during her time in Utah and examined the physiological responses of heterosexual men to male same-sex public displays of affection.

“One hundred twenty men, who were 18-45 years old, came into the lab and viewed various slideshows depicting mixed-sex PDAs, same-sex PDAs, boring things such as paperclips, and disgusting things such as maggots. During the time that the men viewed these slideshows they provided saliva samples that were later analyzed for alpha amylase, which is an enzyme thought to indicate a “fight or flight” response,” she explains.

“The men in this study also filled out measures of sexual prejudice, better known as homophobia. We found that all men, regardless of their level of sexual prejudice, experienced a similar “fight or flight” response to the same-sex kissing and disgust slideshows. This finding was shocking, as we expected only those men who were highly homophobic to have an alpha amylase response to same-sex kissing images.”


“It’s been incredible,” Ms. O’Handley says on her experiences and the opportunity to be involved in undergraduate research at StFX.

“It has allowed me to uncover where my academic interests lie and grow as a researcher. I would have never imagined that coming back for a fifth year would mean discovering my passion for research, presenting at a national conference and having my thesis published. I’ve heard many times from professors and students of other schools that the ability to so easily get involved with research at the undergraduate level is pretty unique to StFX. Since StFX is such a small school and as a student you know your professors so well, you have more opportunities to volunteer and engage with research that interests you.”

She says the experience she’s gained will be helpful in the future.

“The skills and the confidence that I have gained through becoming involved with undergraduate research, through my honours thesis, but also through working on other projects in Dr. Blair’s and Dr. Callaghan’s labs, will prove to be valuable in my future. Not only will the experience give me an advantage when applying to graduate programs and conducting future research, but through these experiences I have learned how to better communicate my ideas through writing and presentations.”

Ms. O’Handley says for most of her university career she’s had an intense fear of public speaking, but the two presentations she did for the StFX psychology department on her thesis and the StFX Student Research Day presentation really forced her to become comfortable with speaking in front of people. “The presentation for Student Research Day especially prepared me for speaking at a conference. Student Research Day at StFX is effective in simulating what an academic conference is like.” 

She was one of eight StFX students able to attend the CPA conference in Toronto, ON thanks to the Jules Legér Award, which funded their travel. She says it was an incredible moment to win the Henry Minton award from this national conference.

“Attending and presenting at the 2017 Canadian Psychological Association conference was a fantastic experience. As a presenter at the conference I had the opportunity to deliver a talk on my thesis research to a group of about 40 people. Following the talk, I was able to engage with many people in the audience through questions and even had the opportunity to discuss future research ideas and current related research with faculty and students from other universities.” 


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