Doctoral Students Conduct Research on Cognition and Neuroscience with Real-World Impact

by Ariana Hajmiragha

This year, Leamarie Gordon and Lara Hwa—Ph.D. candidates in the Department of Psychology—were each awarded the American Psychological Association's (APA) Dissertation Research Award. The annual research funding competition supports research costs for graduate students pursing science-oriented psychology degrees. Gordon, who is working on cognition research, and Hwa, who is researching neuroscience, both have projects that showcase the variety of research questions explored by Tufts psychologists.

Leamarie Gordon, Ph.D. Candidate, Psychology

Gordon will use the APA funding to continue her studies in retrieval enhanced suggestibility. Her research in this field shows that when crime witnesses immediately recall a crime, and are then exposed to misleading details about the crime, they are more likely report misleading details on later memory tests compared to witnesses who did not immediately recall the event. In other words, testing is detrimental in eyewitness memory scenarios. This is contrary to some of Gordon's previous classroom learning studies, which found that recalling or taking a test on a topic was beneficial to memory by enhancing recall of originally learned information and promoting learning of new information.

Gordon proposes that the new results are not as contradictory as they may seem. In both contexts, testing guides attention during later learning opportunities. In the classroom, testing oneself in preparation for a later exam reinforces existing memory and guides attention to relevant information during later study sessions. In an eyewitness situation, however, testing promotes learning of inaccurate details, which later manifests as a memory deficit. After testing, misinformation may "stand out" to individuals. She says, "You spend more time and effort to process [the misinformation], so then later when you have to provide a formal report to the police, you are more likely to incorrectly report it." Essentially, testing decreases an individual's ability to accurately distinguish between what they actually witnessed, and what they learned after the event.

Lara Hwa, Ph.D. Candidate, Psychology

Lara Hwa arrived at Tufts as an undergraduate intending to major in international relations. Her first course in psychology, Psychology 001, introduced her to the notion of studying psychology from a neurological perspective and hooked her. A few years into her undergraduate career, the sub-field of alcohol studies and the line between social drinkers and alcoholics further fascinated her. "It's the difference between the disorder and casual drinking that is really interesting to me," she explains. She began working at Professor Klaus Miczek's lab in which she currently studies alcohol drinking and dependence as an undergraduate, and has flourished there ever since. Hwa's APA Dissertation Research Award funding will support further research in alcohol drinking and dependence studies.

Hwa is well known in the sub-field for a novel approach to inducing excessive drinking, critical to studies of alcohol dependency. Using a murine model, she found that restricted access to alcohol actually encourages a tendency to drink far more than if no limits were imposed. With this technique, she linked a neuropeptide associated with both reward and excessive behavior—corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF)—to over-drinking. 

Now, Hwa has turned her attentions to the role of stress and the CRF neuropeptide in the process of escalated drinking. She will continue her exploration of this process by introducing the variable of social subordination, and how that might lead to increased alcohol intake. Hwa will examine both the external variables of stress as well as the specific internal mechanisms occurring in the brain, in hopes of eventually treating this type of alcohol disorder.

Both Ph.D. candidates feel that their research has potential to have an impact in the real world. Hwa hopes to create pharmaceuticals that target the causes of alcoholism without affecting social drinking habits, and Gordon hopes that her research will maximize how students learn in the classroom and inform eyewitness interview protocols. Both students plan on pursuing the new questions and avenues unearthed by their dissertations after graduation, and both are committed to bridging the gap between theory and practice, no matter how difficult or messy. After all, as Gordon points out in discussing live classroom studies, "it's important, because that's how we show how our work is applied in the real world."

Ariana Hajmiragha is the Administrative Coordinator for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.