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.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Psychology & Cybersecurity

This January work began on a major new long-term project, which will lay the groundwork for a new, highly interdisciplinary science in which psychology plays a critical role. At stake are not only the personal and financial information of individuals everywhere, but the safety of nations, and the lives of individuals in combat and other state ventures across the globe. Not surprisingly, the White House has an interest and will have direct oversight of the project. 

Bennett Bertenthal, the James H. Rudy Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is one of 17 principal investigators from five major universities to receive a grant, awarded in October, from the Army Research Lab to collaborate in a ten-year study of cybersecurity. The group, brought together by Penn State researcher Patrick McDaniel, a professor of computer science and engineering, was chosen from a competitive field to launch a research program on cybersecurity with an initial five-year grant of $24 million. An opportunity to renew in another five years makes this a nearly $50 million project. 

Bertenthal is one of three principal investigators at IU, who together have received $3.5 million of these funds. The others at IU include School of Informatics and Computing professor L. Jean Camp and School of Public and Environmental Affairs professor Diane Henshel.

As Bertenthal explains, “The army has become increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of its defense networks and wants to have a comprehensive research agenda to ensure they are doing everything possible to detect, prevent, and assess the risk of attack.” 

As a cognitive scientist, his work addresses the human dimension of a problem that ranges widely across heterogeneous systems of computer networks and can involve the entire army command around the world.

Many instances of cyber-warfare, he says, “are attacks on actual physical systems or on software itself. But a huge component remains the human dimension and the degree to which individuals can be deceived into providing secure information or just because of their own lack of knowledge provide information that will reduce the security of the computer system.”

“The weak links,” he says, “are often people—people not knowing that they are being deceived into providing credentials or secure information.”
The initial task in the study will be to identify and create models of different kinds of computer users, from attackers to defenders. They will conduct surveys of various groups, both computer experts and novices, from students and ordinary citizens, to army personnel of all ranks, as well as computer hackers. (They will attend a hackers’ conference this summer for this purpose.)

In a second phase of research he and his research staff, he says, “will look at real-time behavior in a computer environment to see how variables such as fatigue, cognitive load, depletion of cognitive resources, or multitasking might lead someone to become less guarded about warnings or signs of an attack. Experimental research on individuals will then be compared to the different models that people in the group are developing.”

“Ultimately,” he explains, “a lot of what we’re doing is trying to understand scenarios where there is risk, figure out how to identify real attacks and how to mitigate against them. You want to develop models that will help to detect and diagnose if a computer is being attacked.” 

And whether we are talking about military secrets, personal banking information, or a database full of social security numbers, the problem, he adds, “does not stop with the military. It affects all of us now.

“That is why it is a ten-year project.”