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Meeting of the Minds

Accomplished student researcher Paul McKee is headed to one of the world’s top doctoral programs in cognitive neuroscience — and has established a scholarship at Southern to help future students succeed.

Paul McKee completed his service with the United States Marine Corps on Jan. 12, 2018. Five days later he started classes at Southern. “My advice to anyone transitioning into college, veteran or not, would be to challenge yourself and fully utilize all the resources that are around you: friends, family, faculty, counseling services, religious groups, fitness centers. Use it all,” says McKee, who majored in psychology and minored in biology and data science.

Students would be wise to follow McKee’s advice. On May 18, he’ll graduate with a stunning list of accomplishments to his name, including acceptance to Duke University’s highly selective Ph.D. program in cognitive neuroscience. Duke is ranked 29th in the entire world for neuroscience and behavior by US News & World Reports. The doctoral program is particularly elite: ten or fewer students were accepted annually in each of the last five academic years through 2020-21.

McKee’s acceptance is the latest in a string of accolades that marks his undergraduate career. He’s received top honors for academics and community involvement — including the Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award, one of the most prestigious student awards for those attending a Connecticut State University (Southern, Central, Eastern, and Western).

But it’s his research chops that place him in a league of his own. “Paul has the strongest research record and potential of any undergraduate or graduate student I have worked with thus far, and far exceeds expectations,” says Christopher Budnick, assistant professor of psychology. He notes McKee’s election to the Psi Chi (psychology), Golden Key (academics, leadership, service), and Mensa (high intelligence) honor societies.

The latter helped McKee, then a new Southern student, first secure a spot in the laboratory of Kenneth S. Walters, associate professor of psychology. McKee’s nontraditional student background could have complicated matters. He didn’t have SAT scores or a college transcript showcasing past grades, though he had earned an extensive number of credits through the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). Testing is free to service members. McKee also had a strong will to succeed, an excellent writing sample (fiction!), and his Mensa membership card.

Walters and McKee had similar backgrounds: both are first-generation college student, who enrolled in college immediately after completing military service. “From early on, I saw much of myself in him. We both came from humble beginnings but had a fierce desire to work hard and rise above. He was respectful, personable, and engaging,” says Walters. “I took a chance and invited him to join my research team. To this day, I have no regrets.” McKee ultimately became the lab manager of the professor’s research team, “putting to good use his notable leadership skills,” says Walters. McKee, in turn, lauds Walters among the many faculty members he credits with inspiring his success. Walters was named the 2020 Mensa Foundation Distinguished Teacher of the Year based on McKee’s nomination.

Other academics agree that McKee’s talents as a researcher set him apart. Research opportunities are rare for undergraduates at many colleges and universities. But McKee has collaborated with faculty on research crossing varied topics. He’s looked at college student drinking and substance abuse, effects of paternal alcohol exposure, psycho-biological determinants of motivation states for muscular movements, morality, fear of missing out (FOMO), and more.

He’s also collaborated on projects representing 13 institutions, among them Yale-New Haven Hospital. Matthew Stults-Kolehmainen, a clinical exercise physiologist at Yale-New Haven Hospital and an adjunct associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia, worked with McKee over several years on a series of studies on motivation and physical activity. The researchers concluded that the motivation to exercise/be active varies moment-by-moment. “In other words, people are not ‘stuck’ in motivational traits, e.g., ‘I’m not a motivated person,’” notes Stults-Kolehmainen.

He has high praise for McKee: “. . .  in my interactions with Paul, I can’t help but feel that I am speaking with a person with some other-worldly talents and traits. He operates on a level that I can’t even keep up with. One might say he’s in another league. In short, I am awestruck by his work ethic, industriousness, and commitment to research.”

McKee is the coauthor of research published in several peer-reviewed academic/professional journals — two in Frontiers in Psychology (the aforementioned motivation studies); one in Alcohol) as well as six manuscripts in preparation. (He’s the first author of four of the latter.)  McKee also contributed to 23 conference presentations, including eight as first author. In May, he presented his psychology honors thesis. In layperson’s terms, McKee looked at FOMO (fear of missing out) and moral judgements. One finding: higher levels of FOMO lead to less severe judgments toward moral violations.

Making such accomplishments more stunning, McKee says he wasn’t always a stellar student. “Education was sadly not something that was always important to me. Without needing to go into much personal detail, I barely graduated high school and had a record of getting in trouble at school a mile long from elementary school throughout my senior year,” he notes.

His commitment to education changed dramatically during his years of military service. From 2013 to 2018, he served in the United States Marine Corps as a machine gunner, earning the rank of corporal (E-4). “During my service, I have borne witness to a broad range of behaviors — from the most altruistic, benevolent, and adaptive of behaviors to the most egotistic, malevolent, and maladaptive,” says McKee, who became transfixed with the science underlying cognition and behavior.

The stellar student is adept at seeing others’ potential — and committed to supporting their success. In April, he became the first student to establish a scholarship at the university. The Paul McKee Endowed Scholarship at Southern will encourage students’ interdisciplinary work in the Department of Psychology and the new Data Science Program. Recipients of the scholarship will major in either psychology or data science, with preference given to those students engaged in both programs. McKee is establishing the scholarship over five years, and says his peers inspired the gift.

“Everywhere I look around Southern I see greatness, both actualized and potential. . . .  there are many students here that just have not had the same opportunities, resources, or support that their peers may have just down the road at Yale, for example. This is not to offend, but rather to serve as testament to their character and ability — because here they are, exuding greatness even perhaps in the face of past and present adversity,” says McKee.

The graduate has long committed to lifting his community — both on campus and beyond. Following his military discharge, he spent eight months mentoring at-risk youth, including those in foster placement, residential treatment facilities, on parole or probation, or in juvenile detention. At Southern, he signed on as an undergraduate teaching assistant for a notoriously challenging course focused on statistics. He also spent five semesters working with the university’s Office of Veterans’ Services, helping service members adapt to life at Southern.

“It has been an honor to pay back the help that was offered to me while I was transitioning,” says McKee, who credits Giacomo “Jack” Mordente, M.S. ’77, 6th Yr. ’79, coordinator, Veteran’s and Military Affairs at Southern, with easing his college journey. “Ultimately my decision to attend was due to him and the wonderful support at Southern that made the veteran transition such an easy process,” he says.

McKee’s journey will continue at Duke. “Ultimately, my career goal is to be a researcher in a tenure-track faculty position in a university psychology department,” he says. His aspiration: to prepare the next generation of scholars while continuing research that spans the intersection of neuroscience, experimental philosophy, higher cognition, and moral psychology.


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