Young researchers present on the global stage (Part 4)

In this fourth edition of our researcher series, three rising stars, competing for Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize, tell us about their research and why they chose to become scientists.

Kimberley Newberry — Kansas, USA

Kimberley Newberry

Graduate Research Assistant at the Kansas State University, USA

#aging #segmentation #memory #cognition #semanticknowledge

Kim will be presenting at the 58th Psychonomic Society Conference, Vancouver, BC, Canada in November 2017.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? I study how individuals use their experiences to perceive and remember information about events. Specifically, I am interested in how individuals use what they know to inform them of what is going on in the world around them.

How has your research field already contributed to the world? Event cognition has a lot to offer to the world. We experience and remember the world in segments of events, so being able to understand what those are, how they are created, and how they are understood, is important. Additionally, if we can understand how the perception and memory for events works, then we can implement different ways to improve perception, and hopefully memory, for those events.

“I am a psychologist because I think we owe it to ourselves to understand as much as possible about ourselves.”

Why are you a scientist and what are most excited about? I am a psychologist because I think we owe it to ourselves to understand as much as possible about ourselves. We think, we know things, and we remember things. Why? How? We need answers to these questions in order to understand ourselves and make improvements as the world grows and changes.

Generally, our statistical modelling capabilities have improved a lot and so has our ability to monitor brain activity, with advances such as fMRI, EEG, and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation. All of these are enabling us to be more precise and more sure about the results we are finding. They also allow for some more creative and interesting experiments to be built. Specifically, some researchers in event cognition have already begun to implement interventions for improving event segmentation and memory. I am excited to see what the results show and where this line of research goes.

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? If you have the opportunity to go, go. Even if you are not presenting, experiencing a conference is important for immersing yourself in the field. If you do attend a conference, try not to overwhelm yourself. There will be a lot do and see, so create a schedule for yourself that prioritizes what you are interested in or what will be important for your own research. And remember to build in breaks.

If you can present, definitely give it a shot! Poster sessions are a great way to introduce yourself to the atmosphere. You will be able to talk with a few people, practice answering some questions, and meet other researchers who are more similar to you in terms of research level or expertise. Local conferences are a good option if you want to attend a conference but are unsure of where to start. They usually cost less and many younger students tend to go to these to build up experience before attending some of the larger, national conferences. Regardless of where you go, definitely talk to your advisor about what would work best for you and your work. Some conferences are more broad, whereas some are more specific to a certain research area. However, in any instance, try to apply for funding. Check out your school’s options for travel grants and funding. This will give you practice applying for grants and awards (which is a good skill to have) and if you earn something, it will make the financial aspect of the conference experience even better!

“You will be able to talk with a few people, practice answering some questions, and meet other researchers who are more similar to you in terms of research level or expertise.”

There are a few benefits to presenting your work at conferences. First, you become immersed in a sea of research and science that is similar yet different to what you are doing, so you are able to expand your own knowledge within your own field. Second, you improve on your social skills and start to network. In academia, teaching, research, and collaboration are incredibly important. Being able to approach other researchers, have informative discussions with them, and create project ideas is significant. Third, you learn how to share your work and speak publicly. Possessing the ability to talk about your own research in front of large groups with varying levels of expertise is more or less expected if you are considering academia. Conferences allow you to present in various ways (e.g., poster sessions, formal talks), which enable these types of skills to improve over time.

Read more about Kimberley’s research here.

Matthew Orr — Caltech, USA

Matthew Orr

PhD Student at California Institute of Technology, USA

#instabilities #starformation #cosmologicalsimulations #galaxyevolution

Matt will be speaking at The Role of Gas in Galaxy Dynamics Conference, taking place in Valletta, Malta in October 2017.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? I study star formation in the largest structures in galaxies: spiral arms, giant gas clouds, and dense galactic cores. With simple pen-and-paper models, and giant computer simulations, I try to explain astronomical observations, and predict new ones. Day to day, I spent a lot of time on my laptop building galaxies, blowing them up, and taking their pictures.

How has your research field already contributed to the world? I think that star formation as a field has two contributions- in a roundabout way as us curious scientists push to detect fainter signals in the night sky and run more complex simulations of galaxies and their turbulent gas, we drive a vein of technological advance, in a more direct way we push into the unknown and make new discoveries and inspire a new generation of scientists, engineers, and technologists. Who doesn’t remember seeing pictures of the universe as a child, and having a sense of wonder? I would also say that you never know how theories of turbulence, feedback, or image processing can cross pollinate into fields and make breakthroughs where other scientists are up against a wall- it’s surprising how similar the problems my friends face in other fields are to my own, and how often everyday conversations with them yield solutions.

Why are you a scientist and what are most excited about? I think I’m a scientist because I never stopped building things- when I was young, it was Legos, as I got older it became water rockets, in college I built huge sixteen foot amateur rockets, and then I found I could build galaxies on a laptop. I never considered myself good at math, but I had an intuition for building things and a knack for taking them apart. It was just fun. I’d say that I enjoy figuring out how things work and telling their stories. I joke with my friends in grad school that I’m not an astrophysicist- I’m a storyteller.

“I think I’m a scientist because I never stopped building things.”

We are entering the era of extremely large telescopes, and large field surveys: in short, we’re getting a better picture of the population of star forming galaxies than we’ve ever had before. This is opening the door to understanding, in a statistical sense, what galaxies are doing day-to-day: some are star forming, some are quiescent, and some are just plain weird. With millions of galaxies in sight, we can finally start teasing apart why those galaxies are weird, and how all the galaxies in this zoo relate to each other. Coupling this dawning of an age of high resolution galaxy surveys with new classes of cosmological simulations (where I come in)- we will have an explanatory ability in the field of galaxy formation and evolution rivalling that of some of the other table-top breeds of physics.

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? I think the greatest benefit from presenting my work at conferences is simply getting to be there. Field-specific conferences in astrophysics draw together the most prominent minds in their fields, and as a junior scientist making those connections in my field is invaluable. Getting to throw my hat in the ring by presenting my work and defending it against the experts of my field is very exciting and, at the end of the day, a lot of fun. Of course, you can’t leave out the fact that astronomy is a global field, and many conferences are in wonderful parts of the world.

“Don’t be afraid to walk up to someone, whom you only know from a thousand author lists in your field, and ask a question.”

Conferences are usually very collegial environments, and most senior scientists love to talk about their work and talking to junior scientists. The first time I attended a conference in undergrad, I just hung out with my grad student mentor for the first few days. Near the end of the conference, he forced me to go introduce myself to several faculty members from other universities- they didn’t bite my head off, instead regaling how they remembered their first conferences being so exciting. It helped break down my inhibitions a little. Scientists who are more senior in your field are people too! Go talk to them! They have great stories, I assure you.

Read more about Matt’s research here.

Aron Hill — Monash, Australia

Aron Hill

PhD Student at Monash University, Australia

#DCS #brainstimulation #neuroplasticity #cognition

Aron will be speaking at the 7th Australasian Cognitive Neuroscience Conference (ACNC), Adelaide, Australia in November 2017.

How would you introduce your research to a non-expert? The brain is an incredibly plastic organ — it has the ability to adapt to change through the reorganisation of its structure and function. My research uses non-invasive brain stimulation techniques to explore neuroplasticity-related brain function. I am particularly interested in better understanding brain-behaviour relationships through investigating how stimulating certain regions of the brain can lead to changes in particular cognitive functions.

How has your research field already contributed to the world? Cognitive impairment is common in a number of psychiatric and neurological conditions, such as schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, conventional drug-based therapies are often ineffective at treating these symptoms. Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques such as transracial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are beginning to show potential as novel methods for improving cognitive function in these disorders. However, these are relatively new technologies and further research is needed to investigate the precise mechanisms underlying their ability to modulate neural function, as well as to improve their clinical efficacy. A better understanding of how these techniques affect certain neural circuits, and, consequently, the behaviours that are associated with them, could lead to exciting future therapies.

Why are you a scientist and what are most excited about? I’ve always been interested in understanding how things work. Science lets me do that as a career!

“Being at the forefront of new medical technologies is really exciting, as is working with people that are genuinely passionate about advancing the field of medicine.”

Cognitive neuroscience is a rapidly growing field at the moment and this is being driven largely by technological advances which are allowing us to look, with ever increasing detail, at the neurobiological functions of the brain. For me, two exciting advances are:

  1. Our increasing understanding of the role that complex neural networks play in cognition, and
  2. The use of network-targeted brain stimulation techniques which are beginning to allow us to explore what happens when these neural systems are modified.

What advice would you give to younger students regarding attending a conference? I enjoy the challenge of trying to clearly convey my research to people from diverse scientific backgrounds. Brain stimulation is a fairly niche, and often misconceived, field of study, so clearly explaining what I do is important. Presenting at conferences is also a great way to meet other researchers from around the world and to see new places.

“Conferences give you the unique opportunity to present your work to leading experts, often from across the globe.”

This gives you a great platform to both promote your own research and get important feedback on what you are doing and how you might be able to do it better in the future. Also, lab work can be isolating at times, so meeting new people at a conference and feeling a part of the research community is really important (if you’re lucky you also get to travel to some great parts of the world as well!).

Read more about Aron’s research here.

The above applicants are finalists in Sparrho’s Early Career Researcher Prize that awards £500 to early career scientists who is presenting their work at an academic conference. To apply, follow this link to the 5-minute application form and use the Sparrho platform to share your research. Applications close at the end of each month and reviewed on a rolling basis.

Sparrho Early Career Researcher Prize now receiving entries!
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