Welcome back to our cogbites interview series, where we interview cognitive scientists by asking them a few questions about their interests in science and what keeps them engaged both in and out of the lab.
As a reminder, you can learn a little about our team of contributors by reading their bios (either on our author page or at the bottom of each post), but this is a chance to get to know some early-career scientists even better. Our last interview was with Brendan Schuetze, a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin.
This week we interview another one of cogbites’ own contributors, Alexa Ruel. Alexa is a fourth year PhD student at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. She works in the Lifespan & Decision-Making Lab with Dr. Ben Eppinger. She completed her BA in psychology at McGill University and her MA in psychology at Concordia.
Her research focuses on decision-making strategies and how they change across the lifespan. In other words, why does decision-making change during development and once again as we age? How do neural changes explain these differences across the lifespan? You can read her most recent article on cogbites entitled, Our Aging Decision-Makers here.
Without further ado, here’s our interview with Alexa:
Why did you decide to pursue cognitive science?
Alexa: I’ve always been deeply curious about how the brain works and how it relates to behavior. This led me to study psychology as an undergraduate student and focus on higher-order cognitive processes – learning and decision-making – in graduate school.
What are you currently working on?
Alexa: I am currently examining how decision-making strategies change across the lifespan and considering less studied strategies to determine if children and older adults are perhaps less habitual decision-makers than current findings lead us to believe.
With this research, I aim to provide solutions to help older adults and children complete daily tasks that often require goal-directed decision-making – such as considering current traffic conditions before deciding which route to take – a strategy children and older adults have been shown to struggle with.
What’s the most interesting concept in cognitive science?
Alexa: I think it’s fascinating that older adults and children are much more optimal in their decision-making processes than most people think. Older adults and children have been shown to be boundedly optimal given their cognitive limitations, engaging in rational decision-making. In other words, they seem to consider their cognitive limitations when deciding if they should and can engage in goal-directed decision-making.
If you want to learn more about this, you can find one of my recent publications here. In this paper, I reviewed how lifespan changes in cognitive abilities and motivational factors such as monetary incentives affect the engagement in these cost-benefit trade-offs. These findings suggest that children and older adults may be optimal decision-makers when considering the constraints of their cognitive abilities. As an extension of recent theories in young adults, we propose two theoretical accounts based in resource-rationality, which integrate the rational use of limited resources with realistic cognitive constraints. We posit that children and older adults engage in optimal meta-control, trading off reward and effort, but that such control is bounded by structural and functional cognitive limitations.
What sparked your interest in science communication?
Alexa: Seeing that the public is inherently interested in learning more about the research happening in universities, but they are so seldomly given the opportunity to hear about it.
When I looked into whether opportunities existed at my university to develop my communication skills, I was surprised to find that there were few. This led me to start the Concordia Psych Journals: the Concordia Journal of Accessible Psychology, which focuses on publishing undergraduate student articles about research done at Concordia in accessible language, and Concordia’s Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience, which publishes empirical articles written my undergraduate students.
More recently, I was selected to be one of 10 Public Scholars at Concordia. This program allowed me to further develop and practice my science communication skills.
Once I started engaging with the public, sharing my work and listening to their comments and responses, I also saw how much insight in my work I can gain in doing so.
Is there anything else you want us to know about you?
Alexa: I am just as passionate about research as I am about yoga. I have been practicing yoga for 7 years, and since September 2021 I am a registered yoga teacher.
When I am not doing research or practicing yoga, I enjoy cooking, baking, and playing Magic the gathering with friends.