Cogbites Interview Series: Alex Samson

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 Becca Dyer, a final year student on the research masters Brain and Cognitive Sciences: Cognitive Neuroscience track at the University of Amsterdam.

Alex Samson

This week we interview Alexandria (Alex) Samson. Alex is a graduate student at the University of Toronto in their Psychology Graduate Program specializing in Perception, Cognition, and Cognitive Neuroscience. Broadly, her interests surround the aging brain with a focus on healthy aging and neurodegenerative disorders. She is particularly interested in the protective effects that lifestyle factors have on the aging brain such as exercise, sleep, and mental health as well as, she is interested in sex and gender differences in neurodegeneration.

Alex began her academic journey at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada where she obtained a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience. During her third year of undergrad, she was chosen to study abroad at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. There, Alex conducted a group research project that looked at the relationship between boredom and self-harm in young adults, particularly university students. For her final year of undergrad, she completed a research thesis project that looked at differences in the electrical brain signals between musicians and non-musicians when in noisy listening conditions using an electroencephalogram (EEG). Following undergrad, Alex was granted a Canadian federal award to work on a project at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Canada. This research endeavor looked at the relationship between attention, cognition, and screen-time in young children.

After a year of travel, Alex continued her academic journey by completing a Master of Arts in Psychology from the University of Toronto. Her master’s thesis explored risk factors involved in the development of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, as a Ph.D. student, Alex is working on multiple projects including the investigation of functional and structural changes that occur in neurodegeneration and healthy aging as well as looking at sex differences in an at-risk Alzheimer’s disease population. Her most recent post on cogbites was about how sex hormones affect women’s brains.

Without further ado, here’s our interview with Alex:

Why did you decide to pursue cognitive science?

I was a really curious kid which made science class very fun and exciting. My favourite part was creating research questions and answering them. Because of this, I knew pursuing a research career would be a good fit for me. However, it wasn’t until I learned during my undergraduate degree that there was still so much unknown about the brain that I knew I wanted to specifically pursue research in cognitive neuroscience. Although the many unknowns about the brain may terrify some, this is what excites me about my work. I hope to one day be one of the many scientists that make a dent in our understanding of the brain and cognition.

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on two projects. The first project is a continuation of my master’s thesis which explored risk factors involved in mild cognitive impairment, a prodromal stage of Alzheimer’s disease. Utilizing a large Alzheimer’s disease dataset, I chose seven of the most prevalent risk factor categories of mild cognitive impairment based on their prevalence in the Alzheimer’s disease research and analyzed whether these risk categories were more common in older adults with mild cognitive impairment compared to those that were cognitively healthy. The second project I am working on is looking at sex differences in episodic memory and cognitive function in a population of individuals with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. An advantage of working with this population is that there is a high chance that they will develop Alzheimer’s disease themselves; therefore, I will be able to analyze disease progression as well as sex differences. I have become so fascinated by my second project that the main focus of my PhD thesis has changed to have a core emphasis on sex differences in memory, aging, and Alzheimer’s disease.   

What’s the most exciting concept in cognitive science?

The blend between computational science and neuroscience I find very interesting. Today, scientists can make predictions about the brain based on computational models which will be great for advancements in clinical settings. For example, my lab is working on constructing personalized brain models to help with the initial diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, computational models may have the ability to help predict neurological diseases before symptoms arise and potentially model disease treatment efficacies.

What sparked your interest in science communication?

I find that many scientists get caught up in the world of science and forget that their published work is incomprehensible to other audiences. For this reason, I wanted to make my research available and understandable to all audiences. As well, I hope that my work in this field will encourage other people in the science community to make their work more accessible to all.

Is there anything else you want us to know about you?

I try to treat my research/PhD as a 9-5 job so in my free time, I enjoy reading, exercising, or completing paint-by-numbers pieces (as I am not very artistic on own).

Alex’s recent paint-by-numbers project and Artie the cat.

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