Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The neuroscience of learning across borders

Brains without borders: Emory Laney Graduate School student Charlie Ferris, from psychologist Stephan Hamann's lab, poses with a brain sculpture at the Institute of Neurobiology in Querétaro, Mexico, during the recent Binational Mechanisms of Learning Forum. (Photo by COMEXUS) 

By Carol Clark

Jessica Dugan sits at a computer in the Emory University psychology department in Atlanta, training a rhesus monkey in a lab at a university in Querétaro, Mexico, on the concept of transitive inference. 

She watches the monkey in real-time on her screen. With a few clicks on her keyboard she can present the monkey with random images on a computer attached to its cage and see which image it chooses. The monkey is automatically rewarded with food pellets for correct choices. Eventually, the monkey begins to grasp that the computer “game” is based on a concept of transitive inference — the idea of a hierarchy based on a shared property.

“It’s pretty cool,” Dugan says. “As long as there’s a wi-fi connection, we can remotely put a monkey on task and conduct a training exercise or an experiment. Technology can make collaboration across countries a lot easier.”

The joint project between Emory and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) Institute for Neurobiology is just one more in a series of doors opening for Dugan, leading to new ways of learning science and conducting research.

She entered Emory’s Laney Graduate School under the mentorship of psychologist Patricia Bauer, who focuses on human development of memory from infancy through childhood. Dugan is particularly passionate about designing and conducting experiments with children to get at some of the key questions surrounding metacognition — introspection about thought processes.

“Basically, I’m interested in how someone thinking about thinking may be able to improve their ability to learn new information,” she explains. “Self-generation of new knowledge is something that we use every day. It’s a process that’s critical to success in education and beyond.”

Dugan is simultaneously working with rhesus monkeys in the lab of Emory psychologist Robert Hampton. “Studying the cognition of the relatives of our earliest ancestors may help us understand if there was some evolutionary demand that led to us being able to perform certain cognitive tasks,” she says.

And now she’s broadened her horizons by working across countries through the UNAM collaboration.

In May, Dugan was part of a group of 15 Emory graduate students who traveled to Mexico for the UNAM Binational Mechanisms of Learning Forum. The forum was the capstone of a year-long graduate seminar held at both Emory and UNAM called “Mechanisms of Learning Across Species and Development.”

Emory psychologist Patricia Bauer, left, listens as Maria Jose Olvera, a graduate student from the Institute of Neurobiology, explains her research. (Photo by COMEXUS)

“It was an amazing experience,” Dugan says of the nearly week-long forum. “The neuroscience they are doing in Mexico is impressive. It makes me wonder why in the United States we tend to mainly focus on science done here or in Europe. It was as though I was watching a documentary about the cosmos and someone started describing our place on Earth and the camera zoomed out so you realized how small that we are. The Mexico forum gave me a much more universal perspective.”

“We want our students to have an international appreciation for science, so they’re not so America-centric,” Bauer says. “There are lots of things to learn from other parts of the world.”

Bauer co-taught the Mechanisms of Learning seminar in Atlanta this year with Emory psychologist Joseph Manns, and both also traveled to Mexico to participate in the forum. 

Meanwhile, Hampton co-taught the seminar to graduate students in Mexico with UNAM neuroscientist Hugo Merchant, who also researches rhesus monkeys. Hampton is on sabbatical from Emory and has been living in Querétaro and working at the Institute of Neurobiology for the past academic year, funded by the Fulbright Scholars Program.

“The idea is not just to exchange information that makes our science stronger,” Hampton says. “Mexico is a country with a huge border with the United States. We need to have more contact with one another so that we understand each other better and reduce the potential for conflicts between our two countries.”

Emory graduate student Kelly Chong, a member of the lab of biologist Robert Liu, discusses her research with Arturo Gonzalez Isla, a graduate student at the Institute of Neurobiology in Mexico. (Photo by COMEXUS)

UNAM, based in Mexico City, is one of the largest universities in the world, with nearly 400,000 students and faculty. Its Institute for Neurobiology is about three hours north in Querétaro, a small but growing city in the highlands of central Mexico.

“The air is a little bit thinner and the sun’s a bit stronger than in Atlanta,” Hampton says. “It’s ‘tranquillo’ — a calm place — with a high quality of life.”

The institute “is doing the full spectrum of neuroscience,” he adds, “from high-level primate cognition work to molecular biology, neuroanatomy, neurodevelopment and more.”

While most classes are taught in Spanish, the Mexican students are required to both read and publish scientific papers in English.

Emory has hosted the Mechanisms of Learning Forum for the past three years as a capstone to the graduate seminar and as part of a training program co-directed by Bauer and Hampton, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

This year, with Hampton based in Mexico, the decision was made to hold the forum in Querétaro, with funding from the Institute of Neurobiology and Emory's Halle Institute, Department of Psychology and Emory College. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico, Mexico’s National Association of Universities and Institutions of Higher Education (ANUIES), and COMEXUS — the Fulbright Scholars Program supporting Hampton’s sabbatical — also pitched in to support the event.

Thirty-three graduate students from the U.S. and Mexico came together with nine faculty guest speakers from institutions in both countries to discuss their work. The speakers covered topics ranging from human language learning, avian song learning, rodent motor learning and the electrophysiology of memory in adult humans.

“It was a phenomenal opportunity,” says Emory graduate student Emily Brown, who had never been to Mexico. “The best part of the experience for me was meeting the other graduate students and expanding my scientific network to another country. It was neat to see that they are facing similar challenges as graduate students in the United States, and doing similar research.”

A central part of the forum is an open-ended hypothesis-generating exercise. “You get together with people from different backgrounds whom you don’t normally get to bounce ideas off,” Brown explains. “It’s a chance to play with ideas across boundaries and disciplines. The aim is to be creative and to not reject something that may sound a little crazy at first. Instead, you brainstorm about possible techniques or strategies that might make it work. It’s expansive thinking that you don’t necessarily get to do on a day-to-day basis.”

“It’s a great exercise,” Dugan adds, “because as a graduate student you spend a lot of time cranking out things that have to be immediately useful. You can get stuck in a mindset of what won’t work. It’s beneficial to get together with people who have different passions and just think creatively.”

Emory graduate student Emily Brown in the Advanced Facility for Avian Research in Ontario with one of her research subjects — a black-capped chickadee. "The people more likely to make the big discoveries are those willing to talk to each other across labs, institutions and countries," Brown says.

Creative thinking has already led Brown into unexpected places. She began her graduate school career studying memory systems of rhesus monkeys in the Hampton lab, and thought she would stick to that path. Then she began hearing about memory work with wild birds and proposed a research project in collaboration with Hampton and Emory psychologist Donna Maney, who is focused on how genes, hormones and the environment affects the brains of birds.

One of the guest speakers at the 2014 Mechanisms of Learning Forum was David Sherry, an expert on bird cognition from the University of Western Ontario’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research in London, Ontario. Brown was inspired by his talk and ultimately able to expand her collaboration to include Sherry. She is now continuing as a graduate student at Emory while in the Sherry lab in Canada.

“It’s one of the top avian research facilities in the world,” Brown says. “I’m developing a technique to study memory and cognition in wild, free-living birds. Right now, I’m working with black-capped chickadees, which are known for taking bits of food, hiding them for later, and then using their memory to locate them. Ideally, the techniques I’m developing could be used with any small songbirds that you see coming to a feeder in your yard.”

Birds make a good model species because they are so widespread and their behavior in the wild is well-documented, she says. “You have some bird species that are closely related living in dramatically different ecosystems and those that are not closely related at all operating in similar ecosystems. So you can compare which cognitive functions of species might be more driven by the environment and the pressures that they’re facing there.”

Adding Mexico to the mix of her graduate school experiences seemed like a natural progression to Brown. “Scientists are doing science everywhere and we shouldn’t be closed off to each other because of some borders on a map,” she says. “Science is advanced by communication. The people more likely to make the big discoveries are those willing to talk to each other across labs, institutions and countries.”

And the talk doesn’t always have to be about work.

A highlight for Brown in Mexico was a social outing — a hike through a wildlife preserve with the host students. “I had a chance to see a lot of the local flora and fauna,” she says. “It’s a really different ecosystem than Atlanta or Ontario. It’s dry, full of cactuses and vermillion flycatchers. They’re very pretty birds.”

Dugan agrees that breaking down barriers is important to the future of science. “The science community is all over the world,” she says. “Science in general is in jeopardy right now but we’re stronger together. People around the world are benefitting from — and contributing to — scientific progress.”

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