Wearing a crimson robe at the commencement ceremony is the highest distinction that any New Mexico State University student can hope to achieve. However, only the best of the best can make such a bold statement. Only one graduate from each college is granted “highest honors” and is able to don a crimson robe. Cailee Nelson is one such graduate.
With nearly 1,500 bachelor’s degrees being presented to graduates at the Pan American Center this month, it’s a high-stakes competition that takes not just a few weeks, but at least four years of hard work and dedication.
When Nelson graduated from high school in 2014, she had no idea where she wanted to attend college or what she would end up studying.
An Albuquerque native, she just knew she wanted to get out of town and experience something new. After declining a collegiate volleyball scholarship at Austin College, her journey led her down south to Las Cruces. She never imagined staying in New Mexico for school, but during her campus tour, she began to fall in love with NMSU. It felt like home.
“I went to the bookstore and I wanted to buy a shirt that said New Mexico State,” she said. That’s how she knew she was sold.
Nelson quickly assimilated to the college town culture of NMSU. She worked hard in her classes and developed a passion for psychology.
“I originally tried out research [because] that’s what I thought I wanted to do in psychology and then I hated it for some reason … I was like ‘Oh my gosh what am I going to do if I don’t like research?’ so I decided to get a business degree so that I’d be more marketable,” she said.
Nelson continued to pursue both of her degrees until she was willing to revisit her research studies. This time she loved it.
Research in the lab
Nelson now works with Dr. Jim Kroger in the NMSU psychology department, where she has participated in various cognitive psychology research projects. His influence is what inspired her to pursue the path she is on today.
“I’ve never felt strong enough to be in the STEM field” Nelson said. “He kind of built up my confidence for that which has helped me tremendously.”
This past summer, Nelson had the opportunity to travel to Denver, Colorado, to be on a research team that worked to understand the motor deficits of children with cerebral palsy. This all began with understanding how important playtime is for children.
“[Playtime] helps develop cognitive, motor and linguistic skills, and overall it’s improving their sense of autonomy, their independence, and their self-confidence because they’re learning these things on their own,” she said.
Unfortunately, children with disabilities aren’t always given the same opportunities to play and interact with their peers.
The lab that Nelson worked in wanted to develop a tool to help children with cerebral palsy take advantage of their playtime while also getting therapeutic intervention. Thus began the development of a socially assistive robot prototype called Glus. A similar project yielded positive responses from children with autism, so the goal became to try using the concept for children with cerebral palsy. The robot is still in its development stages, but the end goal is to have it be able to work in tandem with therapists.
Overall, the idea was to see if differences can be determined in brain activity and attention between typically developing children and children with cerebral palsy, and understand if these children were engaged during the therapeutic intervention.
Nelson’s job was to develop and figure out how to print a 3-D electroencephalogram (EEG) cap that would be used to record these children’s brain activity. This project took a full eight weeks. Her work in disability research stems from her interest in how people are motivated to learn. This task was a major advancement for her in her educational and professional journey.
“She learned the science of EEG research so thoroughly. I now let her run the research and have no qualms about letting her take the reins,” Kroger said.
Looking to the future
Over her four years as an Aggie, Nelson received a Pell Grant, High Achievers Scholarship, Chi Omega Scholarships, as well as a scholarship from the psychology department.
Nelson recently had an opportunity to showcase the work she did in Denver this summer.
“Presenting my research … that was really cool to see people get so interested in something you thought was so mundane,” Nelson said. “That was when I was like ‘Okay this is cool. I could do this for the rest of my life.’”
After graduating, Nelson will be moving to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to study at the University of Alabama. She will be working toward a doctorate in educational psychology with a focus on educational neuroscience.
Nelson is really looking forward to walking the stage at commencement this Saturday as the highest honors graduate for both the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Business.
“It’s been my goal since freshman year to wear the crimson robe, so it’s pretty cool that I get to do that, and not just for one college, but for two colleges,” she said.