Washington University, USA
What does your research focus on?
The primary focus of my research is cognitive control, and age-related changes in control. I am interested in the mechanisms humans use to resolve interference, the interplay of expectancy-driven and stimulus-driven control, the degree to which these mechanisms are impaired versus spared with age, and remediation of age-related cognitive control decline.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I became interested in cognitive control and the intersection of aging and control during graduate school while reading Hasher and Zacks’ classic work. I was fascinated by the inhibitory deficit hypothesis and the clever approaches they were using to test it. The view was so different from the way I had been thinking about age-related cognitive decline, which I found intriguing.
My interests in cognitive aging most definitely grew out of the fact that my grandmother lived in the same household as my family while I was growing up. After enrolling in several psychology classes as an undergrad, I became more interested in the cognitive challenges that she and her friends often joked about. Because my time away at college represented one of the first periods during which I was not interacting with her on a daily basis, my periodic visits home enabled me to observe changes in her cognitive abilities that I otherwise would not have noticed. This made me wonder about what could be done to attenuate cognitive decline with age.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
After grad school, I accepted a post-doc position funded by a National Institute on Aging training grant at Washington University in St. Louis. This position provided me with the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from a brilliant set of scholars including Larry Jacoby, Denise Head, Todd Braver, Dave Balota, Mark McDaniel and Roddy Roediger. The interactions with these individuals were influential as was the overall experience of being immersed in a world-class research environment. Karla Gingerich, an incredibly talented professor at Colorado State University where I attended graduate school, also continues to be an influential mentor with regard to broadening my consideration of new approaches to stimulating learning and engaging students in the classroom.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
My achievements thus far reflect a lot of hard (but incredibly enjoyable) work, persistence, the support of great mentors and collaborators, and the fact that I remain unconvinced of my success.
What’s your future research agenda?
I see myself continuing to work on basic issues in cognitive control (e.g., when do humans engage control versus simply rely on environmental contingencies; what types of features serve as effective, implicit cues for cognitive control) and on better characterizing contextual constraints on older adults’ use of different types of cognitive control mechanisms. In the coming year, my colleagues and I will also be completing a 3 – year NIA-funded study examining the independent and combined effects of exercise and cognitive training on older adults’ cognitive function, and I am looking forward to exploring our findings.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Think, think, write! I happen to really enjoy the writing process, but believe that I have only recently developed an approach that works well (at least for me). I never force myself to write (e.g., during a certain hour, or for a certain number of hours). Instead, I do much of the “writing” in my head so that at the time I sit down to write, the section of the manuscript that I am working on is essentially written. This prevents the frustration of not being able to write productively during scheduled writing sessions. Of course, it also means that you must be willing to devote a lot of time to thinking about your work when you are not working per se (e.g., while exercising).
One other piece of advice is to expect to be discouraged at times. I recall being so bummed out when data did not turn out the way I had predicted. I equated this with failure but have, with experience, learned to think differently about data that are not well behaved. It’s important to remind yourself that every result tells you something (e.g., the theory needs to be modified; your design was ineffective). A related piece of advice is to explore your data from multiple angles—there is no single “right” way of looking at most data sets.
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Bugg, J. M., Jacoby, L. L., & Chanani, S. (2010). Why it is too early to lose control in accounts of item-specific proportion congruency effects. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. doi: 10.1037/a0019957.
This publication is meaningful for several reasons. One, it reflects a collaboration among myself, my mentor, and an undergraduate student, Swati Chanani, who I had the privilege of mentoring. Second, this was Swati’s first publication, and I found it very rewarding to share this experience with her. Third, it represents what I love about being a cognitive psychologist, the opportunity to develop and test a theoretical account, to contrast it with existing accounts, and to generate novel experimental designs for testing exciting questions.