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  • Roger Burtonpatel

More Than a Memory: Dr. Elizabeth Race Re-calls Her Pathway



It is often the case that, without a reference for our future, we find it challenging to envision its possibilities. Exploration into new lines of research, attempting undefined academic pathways, and being the first of one’s family to enter into a post-collegiate institution are each instances of this catalytic leap of faith that looms ahead of a constant many through their undergraduate years.


While forging one’s academic path is a challenge, it is also a line to some of the most engrossing research topics. Numerous are the Tufts professors who followed non-traditional academic pathways, switching between graduate and medical school and working in diverse lab environments. I interviewed one such professor, Elizabeth Race, on her work with attention and memory, and left not only with a stronger sense of her work, but with a more profound and developed understanding of the academic process.


Dr. Race runs the Integrative Cognitive Neuroscience (ICoN) lab at Tufts, where she studies human memory using neuroimaging, incorporating such techniques as EEG and fMRI. She has worked at Tufts since 2015 and has years of experience as a postdoctoral fellow at the Memory Disorders Research Center at the VA Boston Healthcare System. Her multidisciplinary background has led to a fascinating area of study: how human attention fluctuates throughout the day, and how it can be manipulated, even honed, with practical techniques.


Unlike the hyper-area-focused neurological research of old, which would delve deep into one facet of the brain while largely ignoring the others, Dr. Race’s studies focus on networks, giving a more holistic and often deeper view of the brain itself. While studying attention fluctuation, she records brain states across these networks, and aligns real-time tasks with this pattern-measuring to predict if some given piece of information will or will not be remembered by a patient. To measure these patterns, she primarily uses electroencephalography (EEG), placing thirty-six electrodes over a participant’s scalp and measuring their brain waves while they perform tasks. To understand more how the network of attention operates rather than a specific region, Dr. Race measures the phase of the recorded alpha waves rather than their power.


Like all of us, however, Dr. Race has needed to adjust her research methods in light of the pandemic. While patient brain scans are currently impossible, Dr. Race has embraced this change to focus herself and her lab members on an equally important portion of the scientific method: data analysis and behavioral studies. She wisely asserts that little can be gained from endless EEG data if corresponding behavioral patterns are not predicted and recorded, and stated her gratitude for the “silver lining” of being able to incorporate more in-depth behavioral research as a result of Tufts’ no-contact policies.


Equally striking to Dr. Race’s current research was how she led herself to conducting it, starting as an undergraduate. As a Biology major with a deep interest in psychology at Duke, she explored interdisciplinarity in her early forays into research, conducting nervous system experiments with electrodes in a primate lab. More interesting to her than the systems themselves, however, were the questions about how they related to memory- questions she could not pose, of course, to a chimpanzee. This curiosity led her into human research, where she began her larger focus on networks in an imaging lab. She continued working in both medical and research-based academic labs, exploring both behavioral studies and hard biology-based experimentation on hypergenesis of cardiomyopathy with Dr. Michael Chin. Ultimately, her focus on memory led her to study amnesia and attention, which brought her to where she currently stays at Tufts.


Dr. Race’s pathway to her esteemed position of academic success was not as traditional as many of us are led to believe. Switching between medical and academic areas is an under-discussed and often under-utilized technique which can lead to much greater accomplishment and ability than sticking to a predetermined path. For one interested in delving into the world of research and medicine but unsure of where to begin, Dr. Race’s preamble on her academic journey was as enlightening as the descriptions of her research.



 
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