From STEM-focused educational psychology to neural networks in machine learning, it seems like nearly every discipline has something to contribute to and learn from psychology and neuroscience. Being very much a jack of all trades, master of none, I found this interdisciplinary approach to studying the human brain highly attractive, a sentiment perhaps highlighted by my double major in music and neuroscience during my time as an undergraduate student. Still, I knew that to pursue my career goal of becoming a professor of cognitive psychology and neuroscience, I would need to gain substantial expertise on a rather narrow topic and learn how to effectively bring a variety of skills together for impactful scientific inquiry.
As I looked for a doctoral program to help me develop these skills, the Behavior, Cognition and Neuroscience (BCaN) program at American University stood out to me. First, I was impressed by the high quality of research that faculty and students produced through collaborative and frequently interdisciplinary endeavors. My advisor, Professor Zehra Peynirciolu, exemplifies this through her many contributions to human memory and perception, which have often involved collaborations with researchers in the Department of Performing Arts (for studies with a more musical focus) and at other universities. This example encouraged me to form my own collaborations with researchers at the University of Mannheim and Georgetown University.
Similarly, the flexibility of the BCaN program has enabled me to complement my courses on the brain with graduate courses in statistics and audio technology. American University and Washington, DC, as a whole presented opportunities ranging from using a state-of-the-art recording studio at AU to creating psychological stimuli to completing a free workshop on neuroimaging at the National Institutes of Health.
These experiences have been instrumental in shaping my primary research interest in how the brain combines information from different senses, like vision and hearing, and under what circumstances human memory and perception benefit from multisensory information. In my dissertation research, I am completing experiments that compare multisensory conditions, in which participants encounter people’s faces and voices together, to unisensory conditions, in which they only encounter faces or voices.
These comparisons allow me to determine whether people process faces or voices differently when given additional sensory information. For instance, it is already known that the pitch of a voice is very important in vocal distinctiveness, but does it remain as important when face information is also available? Are people with the most distinct faces still the most distinct when we also consider their voices? Even these basic research questions can give us ideas about how to eliminate bias or help people better express their gender identities.
The other major facet of my dissertation research concerns whether face and voice recognition can be improved by previously encountering a person’s face and voice together. With support from a dissertation research award from the Office of Graduate Studies and Research, I will be exploring face and voice recognition in younger and older adults with mild sensory acuity deficits. Such individuals may struggle more with recognizing others’ faces or voices, especially older individuals who may have acquired these deficits and have less ability to adjust to the distorted sensory information. I will be monitoring brain activity during these recognition tasks using EEG. The results from this work may inform how faces and voices are linked in memory and whether additional sensory information can help individuals process otherwise difficult information.
If so, some people who struggle with person identification due to acuity deficits—which often present with normal aging—may improve simply with learning strategies or materials that emphasize multisensory information.