Carissa Stevens ’21 was one of two undergraduate finalists for the Outstanding Research Award at the Central States Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Stevens presented her research on Oct. 24-25 in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Under the guidance of Dr. Julia Moffitt, dean of the School of Health Sciences, Stevens investigated whether heart rate variability techniques could be used to analyze the autonomic nervous system during exercise. She gathered data by having subjects pedal on a stationary bike at low to mild intensity while measuring heart rate through electrocardiographic techniques.

Moffitt began the study with medical students Mindy Pham and Ai Vy Le at the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine, where she previously served as professor and chair of the department of physiology, pharmacology and pathology.

Stevens said that the research began as an inquiry into the effects of body position on different components of the autonomic nervous system.

“But science can have unexpected results,” she said. “So, we adjusted accordingly.”

Steven’s abstract is titled “Changes in Heart Rate Variability Parameters During Exercise Do Not Reliably Predict Changes in Cardiac Autonomic Tone During Exercise.” She presented a poster, delivered an oral presentation and took questions from an audience of scientists and medical professionals.

“Carissa did a thorough literature search and uncovered some previously published data that really helped shed light on some of our results and inform the direction of the project,” Moffitt said. “Due to her hard work, we’re already planning the next phase of the project. I’m very excited she had the opportunity to share her work in this way.” 

Stevens is majoring in biology with a minor in chemistry at Stephens. She is the vice president of Tri-Beta and secretary of Sigma Eta Rho; both organizations are health science honors societies. In addition to her research with Moffitt, she is conducting an independent study to test fecal samples for parasite eggs from the horses at the Stephens College Equestrian Center. 

Stevens believes the opportunity to conduct research as an undergraduate student is essential.

“We learn in our classes what the scientific method is and that we have to retest hypotheses, but it’s a very different feeling when you’re actually doing it,” she said. “Anyone who wants to go into research at any point in their lives really needs to get into it in undergraduate studies as much as possible, because it’s an acquired taste. With this study, I feel like I’ve broken in my researcher shoes a little bit.”

After graduating, Stevens plans to pursue a doctorate in cell biology, genetics or virology with the goal of running her own lab, and possibly teaching at a university.

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