Thursday, September 4, 2014

An InExact Science

In her new podcast, PBS alumna Lisa Cantrell (PhD 2013) explores basic questions of psychological science—and human experience--through beautifully designed sonic landscapes  

Art and science often seem worlds apart. But when the two meet up in Lisa Cantrell’s new podcast, An InExact Science, sparks fly between them, igniting visions of a long, happy, well-lived future, mutually beneficial to both.

Since she graduated from PBS last year and began her new gig as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California, Davis, Lisa Cantrell (PhD 2013) has been dreaming up, plotting out and putting together episodes for her podcast project, “An InExact Science.” The first podcasts will appear online by early November at In January they will begin airing on KDVS in Davis.

In An InExact Science, Cantrell plumbs the mysteries of every day human experience by offering the perspectives of top researchers in psychological science alongside the stories of “ordinary people” (aka non-scientists).  In this way, she seeks to build “a small bridge,” as she calls it, “between what we sense every day and the empirical evidence of science.”

“Why do we experience happiness? How do we learn a first language and why is learning a second sometimes hard? Under what circumstances do we feel regret? Why do we remember certain events but not others? Why do we sometimes misremember? Where does religious belief come from?”

These are the questions that propel a podcast that, she announces in her promotional video, will be “about us, FOR us, and will invite science to pull up a chair, stay a while, have a cup of coffee—heck, stay for dinner! And explain at least a little of why we experience the things we experience.”

But the conversation is hardly one-sided. Language, memory, music, religion or regret—whatever the topic might be—she will also expose what she calls “the beautiful side, the phenomenological side, of what it feels like to experience a particular thing” so that the topic is “not just objectified in the way that science does to explain things.”

In putting these views together, she seeks to produce something artfully and beautifully designed. “I love listening to podcasts that are done really well,” she explains, “the way they move information along and shape a topic. The shows that are really good”—she mentions Radiolab, Snap Judgment, and 99% Invisible—“create a space that has layers. You feel like you’re in a certain room or environment just by the sounds that are happening. They have a beautiful organization and structure.”

But not only is the podcast artfully designed, it is also poised to prompt what she calls a “science-art-what-up!” cycle. Alongside top researchers and a story-telling public, she is enlisting local artists to produce promotional materials. (Go to the website and you will find buttons, posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs.) And she is drawing on the music of local musicians to include in her show. (One of the first episodes includes music of the Bloomington band, Busman’s Holiday.)

Not surprisingly perhaps, Cantrell herself comfortably occupies the worlds of both art and science. A South Carolina native, she started college at Furman University as a visual arts major, but shifted gears when she realized this path would most likely provide little means of support. Not knowing what to do next, she took time off from college and traveled in Latin America. She worked in an adolescent rehabilitation center in Chile while living and painting in an art collective, and she taught preschool English in Mexico.

The experience brought home to her the mysteries of language learning, and on her return to college, she took a psychology course that got her “super hooked,” as she puts it, on the topic…

…Ultimately landing her straight in the lab of one of the foremost researchers on language learning and early development, PBS Distinguished Professor and Chancellor’s Professor, Linda Smith. The first episode of An InExact Science, in fact, is on language and features an interview with her former advisor. (Listen to a teaser for this episode here.)

Now she is working in the Infant Cognition Lab of Lisa Oakes, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, and is studying visual attention and memory in infants and the use of eye-tracking methodology. In virtually all of her spare time, she can be found working on the podcast, uniting art and science in what she hopes will be a long-term relationship to a renewable and everlasting “science-art-what-up” cycle.

Watch the promotional video for the project.  Or listen to a teaser for the first episode.

A Kickstarter campaign to fund equipment and travel for the podcast will be ongoing until September 12.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Discovering a Passion for Science

Local high school students and others participating in Project SEED experience science firsthand in research labs of the IU psychological and brains sciences, chemistry, and astronomy departments

On July 18 Project SEED participants presented their summer research in a poster session in the lobby of the MSBII building on the IUB campus.
Local high-schoolers seeking to explore what life as a scientist is all about need to look no further than Project SEED. The program began in Indianapolis in 1968 and was brought to Bloomington just last year when the program coordinator  Elmer Sanders asked IU psychological and brain sciences professor Sharlene Newman if a local high school student could work in her lab during the summer. One student became five students, which became nine students this year. They joined labs in chemistry and astronomy, in addition to those in psychological and brain sciences.

Project SEED is open to everyone, but has a particular interest in recruiting economically disadvantaged students, who have an interest in science and a desire to experience science in a research lab firsthand. It offers the financial support the students might need and at the same time it gives them a peek into a promising career. They work in the lab and have weekly seminars on topics related to scientific research: writing abstracts, constructing posters, and guidance on such topics as how to choose and apply to colleges.

“We want to expose these kids to science, let them know what research is about and hopefully encourage them to pursue scientific careers,” Newman says.  She admits she herself has a special interest in getting the word out about psychological science. “So many people are not aware of what psychology is. They do not realize how broad it is, that it has a strong computational side and that it includes neuroscience as well as social and clinical psychology.”

In Newman’s lab incoming IU freshman Olivia Lancaster is learning how to use the EEG machine and interpret its data. Specifically, she is learning how to analyze the various brain waves produced as the brain processes language. Lancaster has always been interested in the brain but was surprised how much she also really liked the data analysis involved—and how her training here has allowed her to understand so much.

“You’re getting so much hands-on attention from your mentor and they are very patient and understanding. They don’t expect you to understand it all immediately. It’s not as if you’re in a large lecture hall where you’re afraid to raise your hand,” says Lancaster, former Bloomington South student who will be attending IU in the fall where she plans to major in psychology.

Of all the research labs he toured at the beginning, a study on Fingerprint Identification in the lab of professor and associate PBS chair Tom Busey was North senior Mac Vogelsang’s first choice. The lab wanted him, too, thanks to his sophisticated knowledge of computer programs used in it. “We’re trying to figure out if people look at fingerprints the way they look at faces, seeing them as a whole, rather than in parts,” he explains.

One of the interesting realizations he had here was “how useful statistics are. I had taken a class in it just last year and I was surprised how relevant it was,” he says. ”It can be applied in any field, not just science or math, because its methods are used for analyzing all kinds of data.”

Morgan Newman, a North senior who participated in the program last summer, was able to pick up where she left off last summer in the research lab of Bill Hetrick, professor and PBS chair, who studies schizophrenia. This summer she is helping to complete a project begun last year in the lab, developing the equipment needed to perform a technique known as eye-blink conditioning inside a brain scanner. The equipment, made right here in the department’s own workshop, will ultimately enable scientists to perform experiments that will help them gain new insights into parts of the brain affected by schizophrenia.

Also back for his second year is incoming IU freshman Dedric Dennist from Milwaukee at work in professor Linda Smith’s Cognitive Development Lab and now designing a study of his own. Recent North graduate Greg Lopes was thrilled to have a chance to experience the day-to-day work in the social psychology lab of researcher Mary Murphy, “running subjects” in a study that seeks to understand how we can improve everyday interracial interactions.  Lopes enters Stanford University this fall as a student in chemical engineering, but has a strong interest in social psychology, which the program made it possible for him to explore.

Each student in Project SEED works closely with a member of their lab. Busey, for example, typically spent a couple of hours a day with Mac Vogelsang, discussing various questions that arose in their research on fingerprint perception, as well as the difficulties of data analysis. Among those questions, they debated how best to share the research questions with a study’s participants. “We talked about trade-offs that come with different experiments and had an interesting discussion,” Busey notes. “It’s been instructive for both of us.”  In fact the two plan to continue working together in the fall.

Newman describes how gratifying it is to see the students’ experience unfold during the summer. “They’re all a little scared when they start. But by the third week things begin to click, the research papers they read start to make sense, and by the time they get to present their posters, they’re usually really excited about their research.”

For IU psychological and brain sciences chair, Bill Hetrick, the presence of these students is refreshing. “I thoroughly enjoy having young scientists in the lab. Their newfound excitement and enthusiasm for scientific inquiry is infectious and reacts synergistically with the deep passion I have for research.”

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Joshua Brown presents research at FENS Forum on Neuroscience in Milan

Speaking today at the 2014 FENS Forum on Neuroscience in Milan, PBS cognitive neuroscientist Joshua Brown discussed current research on how people predict and recognize the consequences of their future actions.

"The brain forms expectations about how things should work out, and then compares against what actually happens — or fails to happen," said Brown in the press release. "We're building on that notion of simply recognizing a mistake. We're examining how the brain then predicts outcomes of actions we haven't yet taken — and how those brain areas help us recognize and avoid future mistakes or risky situations.”

Developing a computer model combined with brain imaging, Brown's team demonstrated that error evaluation and prediction involves distinct regions of the brain within the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), and especially within the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). These regions collectively learn to predict consequences and detect surprising events, both good and bad.

Prior studies showed activity in the ACC as or just after people detect their mistake, leading some scientists to describe it as part of the brain's 'oops' center. But the computer model suggested and confirmed that the ACC also detects and tries to prevent possible future errors, as an 'early warning system' helping us bypass risky situations. "Simulating varying situations with these neural models helps us more accurately assess how specific brain areas may learn to predict outcomes of our actions, and perceive future risk," said Brown.