Karl Szpunar

This is a photo of Karl Szpunar.Harvard University, USA


What does your research focus on?

My research interests focus primarily upon, but are not limited to, understanding the cognitive and neural relations that underlie our capacity to remember personal past experiences and imagine personal future experiences.

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

That we are able, in a moment’s notice, to mentally transport ourselves to events past (real or imaginary) and future (plausible or implausible) has always greatly fascinated me. Of course, having an interest in something as a graduate student can only get you so far. Luckily, my graduate advisor, Dr. Kathleen McDermott, shared (and continues to share) a similar fascination. Kathleen’s support and encouragement made it possible for me to turn my idle musings into a fruitful line of research. It is also important to mention that Dr. Endel Tulving would intermittently visit Washington University in St. Louis at the time Kathleen (and I) were developing our ideas on memory and future thinking. The opportunity to discuss these ideas with the man who had inspired them was a true privilege.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this line of research is that so much remains to be discovered. Endel Tulving has often quipped that memory researchers from 100 years in the future would likely chuckle at our “primitive conceptualizations of memory.” This statement has always resonated with me. For a long time, memory has been considered a window into the past and only recently has the field seriously started to consider what it can tell us about the future.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

I am very fortunate to have learned from a number of great mentors. As an undergraduate, I worked with Dr. Glenn Schellenberg at the University of Toronto at Mississauga. From teaching me how to think through the design of an experiment to writing in a clear and concise manner, Glenn took the time to ensure that I was well prepared for whatever topic of study I decided to pursue in graduate school. When I arrived at graduate school (to work with Dr. Kathleen McDermott at Washington University in St. Louis), I quickly realized how much more there was to learn. Saying that Kathleen helped me with that process would be a gross understatement. Kathleen was a model advisor, mentor, and most importantly a great friend. Dr. Henry (Roddy) Roediger was also highly influential during my time at Washington University. Roddy once mentioned at his lab meeting that we might learn more from discussing research articles as a group than we would anywhere else…I think he was right. I learned a great deal from members of that lab group (Jason Chan, Jeff Karpicke, Andrew Butler, Sean Kang, Franklin Zaromb, Jason Watson, Lisa Geraci, Jes Logan, Jen Coane, Dave McCabe, Alan Castel, John Bulevich, and many others) as well as from fellow graduate students in the department that would periodically take part in those meetings (Tal “sideburns” Yarkoni, Yujiro Shimizu, and many others) over the years. Finally, I have been lucky to work with both Dr. Endel Tulving and Dr. Daniel Schacter as a postdoctoral fellow. Among many other things, having the opportunity to observe the manner in which they effortlessly place their thoughts and research into the context of a “bigger picture” has been an invaluable experience.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

Unequivocally, any good that has come out of my contribution to the research that I have been involved with over the years is a direct result of the mentoring I have received.

What’s your future research agenda?

My future research agenda will have a lot to do with attempting to delineate the functional consequences of future thinking. We have learned a great deal about the underlying nature of future thinking, but what does it all mean? We already know about some of the psycho-social consequences associated with thinking about the personal future, but what about the cognitive or behavioral consequences? Furthermore, I have been actively involved in a separate line of work that has to do with applying what we have learned about memory in the laboratory to the classroom. I hope to continue this line of research as well.

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

For those who are entering graduate school, work hard and enjoy yourselves. Pay no attention to how much or little others are working and focus on what you can control…your work ethic. Strive to do your job as well as you can and you will be successful. At the same time, do not take yourself too seriously. Be open to the idea that your work is just one piece of the puzzle. Finally, you will learn a lot more and gain a lot more from the friendships that you will develop over the years. Take the time to enjoy yourself. Your time is your own in graduate school, so it will be up to you to find a suitable balance.

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

The publication that I am most proud of: Szpunar, K.K., Watson, J.M., & McDermott, K.B. (2007). Neural substrates of envisioning the future. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 104, 642-647.

Kathleen, Jason Watson, and I reported one of the first datasets demonstrating that the neural substrates underlying autobiographical memory retrieval become similarly engaged as people imagine their future. This was the first paper that we published together on this topic and lead to several fun collaborations.

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