Gaia Scerif

Gaia Scerif

University of Oxford, UK

What does your research focus on?

We live in complex multimodal environments, and yet even as infants we direct attention very efficiently to select what is relevant into memory, learning, and action selection. I am fascinated by processes of attentive learning, and therefore by the following questions: How do we come to learn what to attend to and how to control our attention to learn new information over developmental time? Why do some individuals really struggle to do so? What are the cascading consequences of attention differences over developmental time?

What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?

When I first started working with children with a developmental disorder associated with a clearly defined genetic aetiology (Fragile X syndrome), two open questions swept me off my feet: It is clear that attention difficulties impact learning across cognitive domains every day, but exactly why and how? Unveiling these mechanisms is the first step to effective intervention, but also has the potential to give insights into the typical trajectories of attentive learning. Secondly, why do some children with disorders of identical etiology present with very poor learning outcomes while others really do quite well? These differences across children point to the need to understand gene-gene and gene-environment interactions in constraining attention development and its variable neurocognitive outcomes. I fell in love with these problems and continue to be excited by how studying neurocognitive mechanisms of attention might address them.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

I have been very fortunate: Amazing mentors have pushed me to think about neurocognitive and developmental processes and continue to do so. Unfortunately, here I can only name a few: First and foremost, Annette Karmiloff-Smith of Birkbeck, University of London taught me, and continues to remind me, how development is key to understanding cognitive outcomes; BJ Casey of Cornell University opened my eyes to developmental cognitive neuroscience; and Kim Cornish of Monash University and Dorothy Bishop of Oxford University continue to inspire questions about and from children with developmental disorders — including the real life implications of understanding their strengths and difficulties.

To what do you attribute your success in science?

Again, I have been very fortunate: Great collaborators in the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia — along with members of my research group here in Oxford — continuously push us all to refine theoretical frameworks and methodological choices. Success in (and enjoyment of) science for me most definitely comes from these collaborative efforts. In addition to continuous scientific exchanges, success comes from the many conversations with and input from parents of “our” volunteering children, as they have helped us keep the science grounded in questions that would be relevant to them.

What’s your future research agenda?

I continue to be fascinated by mechanisms of attentional control over developmental time in and of themselves, but would like to integrate them more and more with understanding their consequences on learning across cognitive domains. For example, how exactly do aspects of attention interact with working memory, and in turn with how information in this mental workspace is consolidated into long-term memory? How do these interactions impact learning in complex environments? If these can be changed by cognitive intervention, how do improvements inform environmental constraints on genetic predispositions?

Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?

Continue to work on methodologies and sound experimental paradigms, but keep the big questions in mind too: These are going to keep you excited for many years to come!

What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?

Scerif, G., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2005). The dawn of cognitive genetics? Crucial developmental caveats. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3, 126-135.

This publication is where I first articulated my focus on understanding gene-brain-environment interactions over developmental time with my mentor, Annette Karmiloff-Smith, so I continue to be very proud of it.

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