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The neuroscience of learning across borders

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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 courtesy COMEXUS

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.

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