Tag: Cognitive and Learning Sciences

Doctoral Finishing Fellowship – Spring 2023 Recipient – Alexandra Watral

My interests lie at the intersection of accessibility and efficiency. For this reason, I transitioned away from clinical work and started my PhD in Applied Cognitive Science and Human Factors in January 2019 under the guidance of Dr. Kevin Trewartha. From day one, my research has focused on developing new tools for assessing cognitive decline in older adults through the study of motor skill learning using a specialized robotic device.

My dissertation research focuses on the use of two novel motor skill learning tasks to distinguish between healthy aging, mild cognitive impairment, and the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s is typically measured using neuropsychological tests that lack sensitivity and specificity to subtle changes in cognitive function associated with disease progression. As such, these tests struggle to correctly diagnoses patients with pre-clinical dementia symptoms (such as mild cognitive impairment) or the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Recent research, however, has shown that the ability to adapt our movements to learn a new motor skill may relate to changes in learning and memory that occur early in the development of the disease. My dissertation will explore the relationship between data collected from two motor learning tasks and data collected through a typical battery of neuropsychological tests to diagnose Alzheimer’s-type dementia. We expect that these motor learning tasks can go above and beyond the ability of the neuropsychological battery to detect changes in cognitive functioning. Importantly, these motor learning tasks take about half the time to complete compared to the standard diagnostic procedures. By showing that these tasks are sensitive to subtle changes in cognitive decline, we can increase certainty in the proper diagnosis while minimizing the time and costs associated with the diagnostic procedure. This could lead to earlier and more efficient diagnoses and subsequent earlier treatment to slow the progression of cognitive decline, thereby improving patient and caregiver quality of life.

I would like to thank the Graduate School Awards Advisory Panel for this fellowship, and my advisor, Dr. Kevin Trewartha, for his consistent support and guidance over the last four years.

KCP Future Faculty Fellow – Tim Raymond

Ever since my early teen years I have been involved in teaching. At 13 years of age I was leading martial arts classes for even younger students. Although the techniques were still quite rudimentary, I found a passion within teaching that has continued to evolve. My teacher as he taught me had enough insight into how much I enjoyed teaching that he began to teach me how to teach. Instead of just throwing concepts or techniques at me, he made sure I understood them all at a deeper level with the intention I continue teaching them. 

I can’t say that academia has always been a major concern for me. Due to unforeseeable reasons, I dropped out of high school when I was 17 years old to help out with the family business. I never thought I would return to a school setting but after many bumps in the road, I eventually found my way back.

The most amazing part about being an educator or at least aspiring to be one is that we are continuously humbled every day through our interactions with colleagues and people above us. These interactions can lead us to new and unique paths that we would have never imagined. My time here at MTU has brought me to psychology and eventually grad school where under my current advisor, Elizabeth Veinott, I have recently been exposed to research regarding the railroad industry. 

While on this new journey through academia I have been able to find ways to combine the knowledge I am receiving from Michigan Tech with my knowledge of the ‘real-world’ and I endeavor daily to become an educator that teaches not just the concepts or ideas but how we can use them within industry and alongside our daily lives.

KCP Future Faculty Fellow – Brittany Nelson

It started when I took a critical thinking class where I learned how irrational many of my, and most people’s decisions, are. Many hold a misconception that we are rational creatures that we weigh pros and cons of each choice and choose the option that has the most utility. I was immediately fascinated that this is not the case; decisions are influenced by biases, environment, emotions, fatigue, and more. As an undergraduate, I conducted a blind experiment that measured the impact of reading a free will philosophy pamphlet on behaviors such as stealing candy and donating money. (Those who read the pamphlet that suggests we don’t have free will are more likely to steal candy and not donate money!) After learning how little we make rational decisions —without even being aware— I understood the potential the field of cognitive science has for helping people.

My interest in teaching allowed me to take many powerful lessons from my Masters’ degree in Applied Cognitive Science and share them with students when I was a visiting professor at Finlandia University. This position opened my eyes to how instructors can empower students through teaching. From this experience, I gained a passion for and concrete skills in how to be a professor.

Under the advisement of Dr. Erich Petushek, my current Ph.D. research at MTU involves identifying, measuring, and improving key factors that impact healthy lifestyle decisions. Lifestyle behaviors cause 60% of premature deaths and lead to 10 years longer life expectancy free of major chronic diseases. I hope that the long-term impact of this research is saved lives and a significant improvement in quality of life.

It is my goal to become a professor in psychology. As a professor, I can empower students to reach their potential and lead a lab devoted to helping people make good decisions. I am so grateful and honored to receive the King-Chávez-Parks Future Faculty Fellowship. I know it will help pave my way toward my goal.