First year Cognitive Neuroscience PhD student
Tell us about yourself
I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario and I'm currently at the University of Waterloo working on my PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, a division of Psychology. When I'm not doing research, I can be found indoor rock climbing, building something, playing the guitar, or singing embarrassingly loudly in the shower.
What is your research about?
I study the effect of eye contact on our interactions with other people. For my PhD research, I'm looking at how eye contact can create feelings of empathy with those we interact with. I put electroencephalography (EEG) caps on my study participants so that I can measure electrical activity in the brain caused by the firing of neurons, or brain cells. Then I track how this electrical activity changes when participants see faces of people looking directly at them versus seeing people looking away from them. This lets me see how changes in brain activity due to the face’s gaze direction relate to participants’ self-reported empathy in certain scenarios, allowing me better insight into how what is going on at the brain level relates to their emotional state.
For example, I might present participants with a picture of an individual with either direct or averted gaze, and tell them that the pictured individual has just won the lottery. I can then measure how their brain responds to seeing the individual, and have participants rate how happy they are for the person on a scale from 1 (not at all) to 10 (extremely). Using this data, I can investigate what effect the gaze direction had on:
- the electrical activity in the brain, and
- how happy participants felt for the individual.
- What have you enjoyed the most about your research?
I love that my research is multifaceted. I'm always moving and trying different things. For example, one day I could be programming a new study, interacting with participants, analysing new data, or writing up a manuscript. There is always something new to learn.
What have you found most challenging about your research?
EEG research is very tricky to do because there are many things that can go wrong along the way. It is a very sensitive measure of electrical activity in the brain that can easily be contaminated by artifacts like muscle movement. This could occasionally cause you to lose your data.
However, the benefits of using this technique definitely outweigh the costs. EEG lets me get a measure of the electrical activity in the brain with great temporal precision, so I know when things are happening down to the millisecond. This gives me insight into when different cognitive processes are happening in "brain-time".
How has your research experience influenced your career path?
My time in graduate school has taught me that I love doing research and teaching others through science outreach and lecturing. One day, I hope to both lecture and open my own lab to continue my research.
How has your research impacted the world?
The study of how eye gaze affects the way we think and feel is important because there are many individual differences in how people respond to eye contact. For example, people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder or with Social Anxiety Disorder typically avoid making eye contact because they find it unpleasant. Understanding why this is the case and how this affects their social interactions is an important step towards understanding those disorders and creating programs to help these individuals.
What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?
I think my field is moving towards developing models of how specific patterns of brain activity result in behaviours and feelings. To develop these models, scientists will combine neuroscience research (like EEG) with behavioural and cognitive research to get a better idea of how physical brain changes affect our experience of the world around us.
What motivates you to do research?
Growing up, I was always curious about how things worked. Eventually, my curiosity turned towards the human brain. I was also very active in my elementary school science fairs, which fostered my love for scientific research. In my undergraduate years at university, I completed an independent study project and honours thesis which let me get my first taste of real research. Since then, I've never looked back, and I find myself motivated by my curiosity and passion for my area of study.
Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment
My "Eureka" moment came the first time I put an EEG cap on one of my participants and took a look at the data. I realized how incredible it was to be able to observe what was going on in their brain and link it to the task I had asked them to complete! I could see if they had gotten sleepy over the course of the study, the exact moment when they had seen a face picture presented to them, and when they had blinked!