Dr. Erica Middleton is an Institute Scientist and Director of the Language and Learning Laboratory at Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute. She received her undergraduate training in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and was awarded her PhD in cognitive psychology with a specialization in psycholinguistics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Afterwards, she conducted postdoctoral research at Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI) and the University of Pennsylvania before accepting her current position at MRRI. Her work is supported by the National Institutes of Health, and has been recognized with the Stanley and Helene M. Cohen Prize for Research Excellence from the Einstein Healthcare Network. In our interview, Erica shares more about her life and research.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:18)
Beyond her scientific interests, Erica is passionate about organic gardening and cooking. She and her family have been having fun creating a variety of dishes in the kitchen, including experimenting with different kinds of macaroni and cheese.
The Scientific Side (4:14)
Many people who have had a stroke experience a long-term impairment in their ability to produce or comprehend language. This impairment is called aphasia. Erica’s research focuses on applying fundamental learning principles to improve language rehabilitation in people with aphasia.
A Dose of Motivation (7:00)
Every day, you should get up, work hard, and leave the end to itself.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:17, 21:53)
Before beginning to pursue science, Erica was an art major. However, after her first semester, she decided to leave the program and move back to her hometown. It took some time for Erica to determine what she wanted to do for her career, but she knew she was interested in philosophy and consciousness. She went back to school and enjoyed learning about disorders of consciousness and how the brain works. These experiences directed her towards cognitive psychology, and she decided to go to graduate school to continue her studies. During graduate school, Erica became fascinated by language, but she was interested in shifting towards more clinical research. This is what brought her to MRRI for postdoctoral training, and she ultimately established her own independent lab there.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (15:51)
The global pandemic has introduced a variety of challenges for Erica and her lab. It was difficult to transition suddenly to working remotely full time when a lot of their research depends on in-person interactions with research participants. However, they have been taking things one day at a time and have re-tooled their operations and approaches to adapt to the current circumstances. Over the past several months, the lab has developed a remote testing protocol that will allow them to engage with people with aphasia in their homes and to safely conduct high-quality psycholinguistics research. Beyond being able to work remotely with local research participants, these remote protocols will allow Erica to recruit participants from all over the country, enriching her research and making opportunities to participate in research more accessible.
A Shining Success! (18:33)
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many scientific conferences were cancelled this past year. These conferences are important venues for researchers to come together, exchange ideas, and advance their science. As a member of the Program Committee for the Academy of Aphasia, Erica and her fellow committee members coordinated the first completely virtual conference ever held by the Academy of Aphasia. It was a remarkable success. The conference usually has around 100 attendees, but the virtual conference this year drew in around 500 attendees from all over the world. It was exciting to see that the virtual format allowed many people to attend, including a lot of young investigators and people from under-resourced areas, who may not have been able to participate in previous years. It was also really great to see her colleagues, even if it was through a webcam.
Book Recommendations (26:10)
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, LaRose by Louise Erdrich, and The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Most Treasured Travel (20:18)
Erica attended the 2010 meeting of the Academy of Aphasia held in Athens, Greece, and it was a wonderful experience. This was her first international conference and only the second time she had travelled overseas. It was amazing to read and work on papers in the small restaurants (called tavernas) with the Acropolis in view. Also, there was so much culture and history to explore. Erica particularly enjoyed visiting an exceptional natural history museum where she was able to see firsthand quite a few of the artifacts she remembered learning about in an art history class during her first semester of college.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (24:24)
The labs that Erica has been a part of over the years have all had a strong sense of family. She’ll never forget getting together with her undergraduate research mentor on the weekends to play guitar or going out for happy hour with her graduate school and postdoc labs. In her current lab, Erica and her colleagues have had to put their happy hour gatherings on hold for now, but they look forward to getting together in person again soon.
Advice For Us All (30:01)
Be mindful and live in the present moment. It is easy to be always worrying about the future and fretting over the past, but it is important to experience life and take it easy on yourself. In our current circumstances, it can help to take life one day at a time. Know that we are all in this together. There are so many members of the scientific community working really hard to find solutions, and we can overcome this.
Erica’s research is dedicated to furthering our understanding of how words are represented and processed during language production and comprehension. A major focus of her work concerns examining how such processes are disrupted in people with acquired language impairment from stroke, a disorder called aphasia. Her current research grant seeks to leverage a scientific understanding of fundamental learning principles to improve the rehabilitation of aphasia. Erica lives with her partner in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and she holds the privilege of being a half-time mom to his two children from a previous marriage. Erica’s passions include introducing the kids to cool things (e.g., Whoopee cushions; sparklers), organic gardening, cooking, reading, birding, and hiking in New Jersey’s state parks.