Savio Wong

This is a photo of Savio Wong.

Hong Kong Institute of Education, Hong Kong

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses on examining body and brain interaction and its role in decision making. My studies integrate psychophysiological measurements with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the cortical modulation of the autonomic nervous system during decision making. Recently, I expanded my research into educational neuroscience. My recent study examines the role of education in shaping the development of the neural substrate that is involved in decision making. It is an exciting collaboration with Sheung-Tak Cheng and Rebecca Cheng at the Hong Kong Institute of Education (HKIEd). Our goal is to advance our understanding of the neural mechanisms of learning and to develop biomarkers that can help teachers to identify and address the individual needs of students more effectively.

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

I have been fascinated by the mystery of the brain since high school. My major was cognitive science in college, where I got to know more about psychology and neuroscience. In particular, I am very interested in the biological process of decision making, which is so important to human development that we have been making thousands of decisions every day since the very first day that we were born. But at the same time we know so little about this process. Therefore, I decided to study decision making and to incorporate the new knowledge into the development of curriculum that could enhance students’ decision-making ability.

Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?

My very first mentor in psychology was John Spinks at the University of Hong Kong. John introduced me to the field of brain research and gave me the privilege of participating in some exciting neuroimaging projects during my graduate studies. Kevin Shoemaker at the University of Western Ontario is the most important mentor in my research career. Kevin is not a psychologist but a physiologist. He taught me a lot about autonomic physiology and helped me to build a solid foundation of knowledge and technique in neuroscience research. In fact, my research on decision making took off when I was under the supervision of Antoine Bechara and Antonio Damasio at the University of Southern California. Antoine and Antonio provided me opportunity and guidance in realizing my aspiration to study brain-body interaction during decision making. They are amazing and extremely knowledgeable researchers in the field.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?

I would consider myself still to be at the very early stage of a research career, and my success can hardly be compared to my mentors’. I believe that to be successful in scientific research, I have to stay optimistic at all times, even when the experiment went wrong and the data did not support the hypothesis. There are so many ups and downs in a research career. I learned my most important lessons through failures and mistakes. It is persistence and the aspiration to achieve my goals that keeps me moving forward.

What’s your future research agenda?

In addition to the study of adolescents, I am interested in examining the decision-making abilities of the elderly. The loss of brain dopamine activity with age and the role of dopamine in decision making are well documented. However, it is unclear how the decision making of elderly people is affected. Currently, I am collaborating with Sheung-Tak Cheng at HKIE to investigate neural and cognitive changes in elderly people, with the aim of investigating how decision making is affected by neurological and cognitive changes in later life.

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

Research is fun, but it may not be suitable for everyone. If you decide that it is something you really like, then you have to set your goal and work very hard for it. In the end, the ups and downs in your research career make you love what you are doing even more.

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

Wong, S. W., Massé, N., Kimmerly, D. S., Menon, R. S., &  Shoemaker, J. K. (2007). Ventral medial prefrontal cortex and cardiovagal control in conscious humans. NeuroImage, 35, 698-708.

This paper reported the cortical modulation of parasympathetic nerve activity in healthy humans. Our results showed that, in addition to the brainstem autonomic center, the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC) is also involved in modulating autonomic responses. The literature on lesion studies shows that the vMPFC plays a critical role in decision making. The findings of this study provided the crucial link between parasympathetic nerve activities and decision making in healthy individuals.

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