Cognitive Neuroscience Researcher Makes Connections, Solves Problems
“A single defining moment made cognitive neuroscience the field for me,” declares Lisa Sanders, assistant professor of psychology who joined the UMass Amherst College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ faculty this fall. “As a sophomore at Rice University, I had the worst work-study job ever: beeper-sitting during evening classes for physicians. Every time a beeper went off, I had to call the number and determine whether the doctor should be pulled out of class or if I could take a message. The doctors and the callers rarely agreed on what constituted ‘important,’ so my decisions always angered someone. After a particularly rough round of beeper-sitting, I went to my cognitive psychology class. The professor did two amazing things. She brought in the first human brain I had ever seen and announced she was looking for research assistants. I’ve been involved in neuroscience research ever since.”
Cognitive neuroscience makes connections between biology and psychology. Sanders studies various aspects of auditory processing in children and adults. Her research includes measuring event-related brain potentials (brain waves) and using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to record changes in blood flow in the brain when humans do different cognitive and perceptual tasks. “The most general goal,” she explains, “is to understand relationships between brain structures, the functions they support, and the complex human behavior they result in—the general goal of cognitive neuroscience.” More specifically, Sanders studies how children and adults learn to selectively attend to different aspects of sounds. “The ability to direct auditory attention towards the most helpful information,” she says, “is vital for speech perception, being able to listen to a single sound source in a noisy environment, and enjoying and understanding music.”
Conducting research, Sanders believes, is an exercise in creative problem solving and persistence. “The true moments of discovering something new are fairly rare,” she acknowledges. “But they are so exciting and invigorating that they make the more repetitive aspects of research worth it.” Moments of discovery, Sanders explains, occur in many different settings: while staring at the same data for days in a row; during a mentor’s presentation; in discussions about research only distantly related to her own; while explaining a project's purpose to new students; or when students and colleagues from different backgrounds see a problem in a unique way. “These interactions about research are vital to the research itself,” she emphasizes.
Sanders holds a PhD in psychology with a certificate in neuroscience from the University of Oregon and did a post-doctoral fellowship with Dr. Helen Neville, director of the Brain Development Laboratory there. She came to the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst because, she says, “the psychology department is exceptionally strong. Cognitive psychology and behavioral neuroscience here have done a great job of producing high quality research and high quality students. With strong programs already in place, cognitive neuroscience here has the advantage of drawing on both well-established successful research programs and new ideas and techniques. I see it as a place for great teaching, exciting research and my own development as a cognitive neuroscientist.”
Setting up an independent research program, Sanders says, is challenging. “So far it has included everything from figuring out why an amplifier for measuring brain waves works in one room but not another to figuring out where to get the best coffee, and from learning what UMass students are like to writing grant applications. And the quality of life here is great. Before I came from Oregon, I was convinced the entire east coast was crowded. Not so! I have discovered great places for day hikes, walks with my dogs, and backpacking. Some of my best research ideas occur during these trips.”
November 1, 2005