At first glance, the room seems nondescript. A few tables, some laptops, a couple of cubicles cordoned to provide privacy for whomever is sitting at the unremarkable workstations. What you won’t notice are all the features, equipment, and technology embedded to study human behavior in any number of controlled configurations.
There’s a mirror that is actually a one-way window, allowing researchers to observe focus group reactions without interfering. There’s cameras and audio recorders to capture what people say and do, and the capability to code and compile different reactions. Even the laptops are equipped with Tobii eye-tracking software to monitor what content on which point on the screen catches the most eyeballs.
Villanova University School of Business‘ Laboratory for the Advancement of Interdisciplinary Research (LAIR) officially opened in the 2018-2019 academic year, but was just ramping up for cutting-edge research when the pandemic hit. It’s now ready for a reboot of sorts.
“It’s been an interesting time to open a designated space for in-person data collection,” says Beth Vallen, associate professor of marketing and business law at VBS, showing off the LAIR lab to a Poets&Quants reporter on a recent campus visit.
“We weren’t on campus for a while, then we were in masks, and there were a lot of restrictions on in-person data collection. It made a lot of sense, but it put big limitations on what we could do with the space,” Vallen tells P&Q. “It is exciting to get back in here. I feel like this is like our post-COVID restart.”
A POST-COVID REBOOT
Like business schools across the country, VBS was forced to delay, readjust or reimagine how it delivered education and conducted research during the course of the pandemic. Variants and waves of infection closed in-person classrooms, restricted group gatherings, and postponed events and new initiatives.
In January as universities prepared to welcome back students after winter break, omicron once again delayed start dates or moved in-person classes back online, at least temporarily. By mid-March however, little of the pandemic restrictions could be seen in Bartley Hall, the epicenter of Villanova Business School.
Poets&Quants visited the school this spring to check in with how students and faculty were readjusting to a new normal as pandemic disruptions were finally subsiding. The campus buzzed with activity. Outside, the school was setting up a March Madness rally celebrating their beloved Wildcats. Classrooms were again packed. Students congregated in Bartley Hall’s cafeteria, at its study tables, and in its hallways.
Two features officials were eager to show off were the LAIR Lab and the Gmelich Lab for Financial Markets. Both had opened just weeks or months before the pandemic, but were ready to ramp up to their full potentials.
STUDENTS AS RESEARCHERS
The LAIR Lab is a behavioral research lab providing a controlled, technologically advanced space for faculty and students to conduct studies through surveys, interviews, focus groups, and other primary sources of data collection.
One key distinguishing factor for VBS is its research opportunities for undergrad business students, says Jonathan Doh, associate dean of Research and Global Engagement. VBS created its first b-school specific honors program about five years ago, and an important focus is to give each undergrad participant the chance to become a paid research assistant or associate to a faculty member.
“These faculty-student partnerships vary a lot. Sometimes, it’s students supporting the faculty member in his or her research. Sometimes, it’s a true collaboration. And sometimes, it’s the student coming up with a research idea that a faculty member becomes interested in,” Doh says. “This is something that we really do think is somewhat distinctive, and something we want to be known for.”
Students that help in faculty research can use the lab to collect data while learning sound research principles. Study participants, meanwhile, not only help advance faculty research, but they see first-hand the connection between theory and practice.
“The creation of this new lab is an essential step in promoting groundbreaking and collaborative research between faculty and students across Villanova,” Vallen said upon the lab’s opening. “With a designated research facility, we can better provide opportunities to expand and promote the exciting research that is happening here at VSB.”
A PLACE FOR INTERDISCIPLINARY RESEARCH
A good chunk of marketing research is behavioral and qualitative. Watching how consumers respond to different product labels, advertisements, and packaging. Listening to focus groups and collecting data on participant reactions. Gauging response to new products or web interfaces.
At our visit in March, a sunscreen display you might see in a supermarket was set up with different brands with different packaging. Researchers were using the display to measure which special label disclosures were most effective at catching a consumer’s attention. They did this by asking study participants to wear special glasses that could track eye movement as they looked at the display.
While consumer behavior is a big part of marketing research, the lab can be used for any field in which researchers need to study human reaction. For example, a researcher studying an accounting question might bring in a group of auditors to participate in a controlled experiment, Vallen says. The space is configurable to fit a large number of experiments or data collection, from individual subjects to larger focus groups.
“Really, any type of research that is looking at behavior and people can be done here,” Vallen says. “I think the ‘interdisciplinary’ in the title is key because it is applicable to researchers across all departments.”
GMELICH LAB FOR FINANCIAL MARKETS
The Gmelich Lab for Financial Markets was named for Victoria and Justin Gmelich who gifted $3 million to expand the old Applied Finance Lab and move it up from the basement and into a bright, open atrium at the center of Bartley Hall. It opened with great fanfare in fall of 2019.
“As two former bond traders, Victoria and I experienced first-hand the importance of technology in capital markets and the growing need for students to be conversant in coding,” Justin Gmelich explained at the time. “Sponsoring a state-of-the-art finance lab provides a platform for educating the next generation of finance leaders while supporting Villanova University and its nationally recognized business school.”
On the afternoon of our visit, about a dozen students sat at the lab’s state-of-the-art workstations inside the glass walls. Nine 75-inch LED screens along the walls flashed trend graphs, stock prices, and other market insights in multiple colored fonts. When it’s not being used in scheduled classes, students use it to work on their own projects or just to explore the complex software required for working with large data sets and financial analysis.
Its purpose is to give students the technological background to prepare them for future financial jobs, some that might not even have been invented.
“It is by no means just a finance lab, it’s very much at the core of VSB,” says Ben Scheick, associate professor and chair of finance and real estate. “Physically, the location of the lab says something about what it represents to the student experience. It’s physically the focal point as you walk into Barley Hall. But it’s really at the center of us trying to create as much of a real world environment as possible, and give students the tools and the skills they need on their first day at their first jobs.”
Twenty years ago, Scheick was a VSB graduate himself, starting his first job in finance. One of the first tasks he was assigned was to pull a data set from Bloomberg, a complex platform he’d never before used.
Today, each of the workstations is connected to the Bloomberg Terminal. Every VSB freshman obtains Bloomberg MarKet Concepts certification in their required Information Technology course. Similarly, every VSB student can register for online access to FactSet which provides massive amounts of market and company data while allowing users to perform in-depth analysis for strategic investing. The lab’s terminals are also connected to other large and important financial databases such as Wharton Research Data Services, TraderEx, SDC Platinum, Morningstar Direct, and SNL Financial/IW Financial.
Students have access to ArcGIS–a powerful geographic mapping system used extensively in real estate–and virtual reality for advanced analytics 3D data visualization.
The high-power hardware is equipped to handle the complex, data-intensive computations for courses in machine learning and artificial intelligence. A smaller classroom with 13 more workstations is designed for group projects and research.
From the terminals, students can monitor myriad financial markets or VBS’ various student-led investment funds, including the Dan-Tom Real Estate Student Managed Fund–the first and perhaps only university fund that allows undergraduates the chance to directly invest in commercial real estate.
“Being where we are geographically, we sent a lot of students to Wall Street. A big part of that initial experience on the job is getting your hands in the data and practitioner-related research,” Scheick says. “And it all starts right here, on those terminals.”