Gwen Frishkoff, PhD, didn't know she wanted to be a cognitive neuroscientist until she had nearly completed a master's degree in linguistics. Yet, the circuitous path she followed from an undergraduate double major in Russian linguistics and philosophy to her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh hasn't held her back.
In fact, her broad educational background has made her a rising star among those who study language and the brain.
"There are very few researchers now-junior or senior-who combine her theoretical breadth and methodological ability," says University of Oregon cognitive psychologist Don Tucker, PhD, Frishkoff's doctoral adviser.
Her interest in language along with her strong experimental and theoretical background won her a spot in the lab of Pitt psycholinguist Charles Perfetti, PhD, through a joint APA/Institute of Educational Sciences (IES) postdoctoral fellowship program. Together they're using brain scanning techniques to study how people learn words.
"I've always loved school and reading and thinking, so there's a kind of visceral excitement I get when I hit on a technique for understanding how people do those things," says Frishkoff. "This is where I feel happy."
MAKING THE SWITCH
Although Frishkoff has long sought to understand the interplay between mind and language, as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, she didn't even know there was such a thing as cognitive neuroscience. But when she moved back to her hometown of Eugene, Ore., to pursue a graduate degree in linguistics at the University of Oregon, she came out from under her rock, as she puts it. Because of the university's culture of cross-disciplinary collaboration, Frishkoff soon found herself working with scholars in many areas, including cognitive psychology.
"I was much happier in the lab than out doing field work," says Frishkoff, who switched to the psychology department for her PhD after completing her masters in linguistics. It didn't hurt her status among psychologists that she loves rats-not for research but to keep as pets. She currently has three, including two hairless Dumbo rats.
In psychology, Frishkoff discovered that she could study language and cognition using experimental techniques to actually see what is happening in the brain. Over the course of her doctoral training, she's learned how to use dense-array electroencephalogram (EEG)-a way to noninvasively measure brain electrical activity-and other brain-imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging.
In her doctoral thesis, Frishkoff investigated how positive and negative moods affect word comprehension and what areas of the brain are involved in this interaction. She based her work on earlier research suggesting that the brain accesses closely associated words using its left hemisphere but uses its right hemisphere to access a wider range of meanings.
Add to that Tucker's research suggesting that the left hemisphere is more active during negative moods and the right hemisphere is more active during positive moods, and you get Frishkoff's prediction: Negative mood should make it harder for people to pull up words distantly associated with a target word (and there would be increased activity in the left hemisphere), and positive mood should help people process remotely associated words (with increased activity in the right hemisphere).
Their findings were consistent with these ideas, supporting a long-held theory of Tucker's that the limbic system-an area of the brain that controls emotion-affects fundamental processes in language and cognition.
After completing her psychology degree, Frishkoff contacted Perfetti and together they applied for the APA/IES fellowship, which pairs educational researchers with fellows seeking educational psychology training. In September 2004, Frishkoff began receiving a two-year $55,000 annual fellowship stipend. She and Perfetti are using EEG to map what brain areas activate as children and adults learn new words. They are particularly interested in 9- and 10-year-olds, since some children at that age experience a slump in reading abilities.
"I'm hoping to see consistent effects of word learning that we can then link to specific abilities, such as fluency and self-monitoring," says Frishkoff. "We'd like to know what skilled readers are doing and figure out the best way to introduce words so readers can take them in and assimilate them and become better readers."
THE FUTURE FOR FRISHKOFF
While Frishkoff's heart lies squarely in the experimental and theoretical camp, she is committed to research on reading instruction and is keen to pursue applied collaborations in learning and education. If her past is any indication, she will likely make time for it all.
"On top of the half a dozen different studies she was involved with last year, she also worked on data analyses, sat in on a seminar I was teaching and gave a workshop to our lab's reading and language group on event-related potentials," says Perfetti. "She's very generous with her time."
Indeed, when Perfetti told Frishkoff about a program at Pitt that matched freshmen with researchers to give students experience in a research setting, Frishkoff recruited five bright freshmen to work for her.
"People think I'm intense," says Perfetti, "but Gwen beats me by half a standard deviation."
The downside to her fast-track career, says Frishkoff, is how far it has taken her from her husband, University of Oregon computer science professor Allen Malony, PhD. They've been living apart since Frishkoff moved to Pittsburgh, and she's now thinking about extending her stay.
"It would be nice to have another year to wrap things up," she says.
After that, Frishkoff plans to apply for faculty positions in cognitive neuroscience. For now, she's happy with the work she's doing, listening to jazz in a city she's grown to love and spending time with her pet rats.
Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.
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