Dr. Ayanna Thomas is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Graduate Program in Psychology at Tufts University. She was awarded her B.A. in psychology from Wesleyan University and her Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Washington. Afterwards, Ayanna conducted postdoctoral research at Washington University in St. Louis. She worked as an Assistant Professor at Colby College before joining the faculty at Tufts in 2007. In our interview, Ayanna tells us more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:20)
In her free time, Ayanna loves watching movies. She and her husband have a tradition where they watch a different horror movie every night throughout the month of October to celebrate Halloween.
The Scientific Side (3:25)
Ayanna conducts research to answer a wide variety of questions related to memory. She aims to better understand how our memories work, how our memories fail, how we perceive our memory function (metacognition), how memories change over time, and how these aspects of memory may impact our everyday lives.
A Dose of Motivation (5:06)
Throughout her life, Ayanna has been really motivated and inspired by her father’s work ethic and his drive to keep moving forward. She has also discovered, that it is more important to be happy with the balance of your life than it is to get everything done.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:14)
Ayanna attended a science-intensive high school where students took multiple science courses and rigorous lab courses each year. This early exposure to science in high school really piqued Ayanna’s interest in the scientific method, but she also developed a passion for Latin. In college, Ayanna took a senior level Latin seminar her first year, and she found this course incredibly boring. This made her begin to question what she wanted her major to be. In the second semester of her sophomore year, Ayanna signed up for an upper level psychology course on memory. This course introduced students to key studies in the primary literature, and some of the articles helped spark her curiosity in the field of memory. After class one day, Ayanna asked her professor about opportunities to get experience working in a laboratory, and she started working in his lab shortly afterwards. This was the beginning of Ayanna’s exciting career in scientific research.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (20:42)
In one project in the lab, Ayanna and her team are interested in understanding how physiological factors may affect our ability to remember and learn new information. They are hoping to build smart classrooms where they can capitalize on positive aspects of the stress response while minimizing the negative impacts of stress. This involves monitoring physiological factors like heart rate and the production of a stress-related hormone called cortisol. They have been wanting to be able to continuously monitor cortisol levels in people, but this is currently a substantial technological barrier that limits their research. Another challenge Ayanna faces is related to the extent to which their research can be generalized. Specifically, it is difficult to know whether the results you see with a small subset of individuals from a homogeneous sample apply to diverse groups of people around the world. They are working hard to figure out ways to increase the diversity of their samples in experiments so that their conclusions can be more robust and generalizable to more people. A third struggle Ayanna faces is related to making science available more globally. Ideally, scientists across the world could connect and have access to the research and publications from different countries. Access to science is improving internationally, but the process is slow, change is often incremental, and this can be a major frustration.
A Shining Success! (23:42)
The year Ayanna was accepted into graduate school was a fantastic year. She remembers feeling extremely validated when researchers from different institutions were reaching out to her to express interest and enthusiasm for supporting her training. Now that she is a faculty member, Ayanna loves celebrating the successes of her students. The graduation ceremony where she gets to put a hood over the head of one of the newly minted Ph.D. graduates from her lab is particularly meaningful. It’s also wonderful to see former students and have lab reunions at conferences.
Book Recommendations (25:18)
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin, Death’s End by Liu Cixin
Most Treasured Travel (27:04)
Ayanna has visited so many remarkable places as part of her career in science. In 2009, she visited Japan for the first time for a conference. This trip was particularly memorable because it was the first international trip where she traveled alone, and she celebrated her birthday during the trip. Ayanna was in Japan for three weeks, and while she was there, she got a traditional Tebori tattoo from an artist outside of Tokyo. Her travels have also taken her to Southern Chile where she attended a conference and hiked through some of the beautiful parks of Patagonia. Recently, Ayanna and her husband spent about two months in the eastern part of France. During this trip, she met wonderful scientific colleagues and enjoyed learning about the culture.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (29:20)
While she was in France, some of her French colleagues joked that Americans didn’t know much about food. Ayanna disagreed, and she was determined to impress them with her cooking. She was challenged to make a delicious traditional American meal for the group. After some deliberation, Ayanna decided to make a baked macaroni and cheese dish to share. She went to her colleague’s house to cook around 4:30 pm to get started. They went on a hike, hung out, and by 7 pm, they were just starting to cook. Some of their colleagues from the department came over with their families, and dinner was finally served at 9:00 pm. In France, dinner is typically served late, so there were no complaints, and everyone loved the macaroni and cheese.
Advice For Us All (33:04)
Be transparent about your goals and encourage those around you to be transparent. Doing so will make it easier for everyone to achieve their goals. Also, for students making a decision about where to go to graduate school, the most important thing to think about is your quality of life. Consider if you will have the support you need from friends, family, the lab, your advisor, and the department to get through this challenging phase of your career. Think about whether a particular program is a place where you can be happy, healthy, and supported while you are there.
We frequently learn more about memory from its failures rather than its successes. Ayanna’s research delves into the various contexts that result in episodic memory failures. She takes the theoretical perspective that memory decisions are inferential in nature. An episodic event is not represented as a single unit, but rather a distribution of elements that can be differentially accessed at retrieval. Accessibility to those elements influences both memory and metamemorial decisions. By influencing the accessibility of specific elements, or attributes, she is able to bias retrieval. The result is memory and metamemorial failures. Ayanna’s research focuses on three specific situations related to retrieval bias: bias resulting from accessible encoded attributes; bias resulting from automatic processing at encoding and/or retrieval; and controlling bias by improving retrieval monitoring.