Ryan is a 3rd year PhD candidate in our Cognitive Neuroscience area who is supervised by Dr. Myra Fernandes. Ryan’s research focuses recurrent or intrusive memories. The classic example of this phenomenon is a taste or smell suddenly evoking a moment from your past, without even having tried to recall that moment. Studies have indicated that these involuntary memories are quite common in daily life, leading some to argue that they’re mostly benign or pleasant. On the other hand, involuntary memories are also thought to contribute to mental health issues, being most commonly associated with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. In other words, opposing perspectives exist about whether recurrent memories are harmless or harmful.
Ryan’s recent work with Dr. Fernandes has shown that both of these perspectives seem valid to some degree. First, recurrent memories were indeed experienced by the majority of our participants. Their work supports the view that recurrent memories occur too commonly among healthy populations to be considered only related to mental health disorders. Conversely, they found that properties of these recurrent memories (e.g., whether you consider the memory emotionally negative or positive) can predict symptoms of mental health issues: negative emotion was related to significantly more symptoms of depression, general anxiety, social anxiety, and PTSD.
Moving forward, Ryan will be working to characterize and compare these recurrent memories in different populations. For example, this previous study only surveyed young adults; they’ve since found some surprising similarities and differences in older adults. Although memories for the personal past tend to weaken in older age, they found that recurrent memories were just as common among older adults as young adults! However, older adults’ recurrent memories differed in that they were disproportionately positive in emotion, whereas young adults’ were disproportionately negative. Ryan believes that the properties of recurrent memories depend on the population sampled, and hope to explore these individual differences further.
Most recently, Ryan has been using machine learning to characterize the content of these memories. To date, very little is known about what recurrent memories are actually about, especially in general populations. Using thousands of participants’ text descriptions of their recurrent memories, Dr. Fernandes’ lab identified consistent topics such as friendships and car accidents, and quantified how prevalent these topics are. Further, they’ve found that symptoms of mental health issues predict participants’ use of these topics in unique ways. For example, preliminary analyses indicate that symptoms of specific mental health issues (e.g., PTSD) can predict the use of specific topics (e.g., interpersonal stress). In the end, Ryan hopes that his research can build towards a more nuanced understanding of what recurrent memories are, how they compare across different populations, and how they relate to mental health.
Ryan has presented his research at the annual conferences of the Psychonomic Society, International Neuropsychological Society, the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour, & Cognitive Science, and the Toronto Area Memory Group.
He has also been serving as an Associate Editor for Mind Pad, a peer-reviewed publication by the Canadian Psychological Association. Ryan says of the experience: “It’s definitely fostered a newfound appreciation for all the work that editors and reviewers do in the name of science!”
Ryan’s favourite thing about graduate studies in the Department of Psychology is the collegiality. Ryan says he is grateful to have had fantastic collaborators from all over the Department and he notes that “grad students and faculty here have been very generous to me when it comes to sharing ideas, feedback, and resources along every step of the way”
Ryan recently won a Hebb Student Award at the 2021 CSBBCS conference for Best Oral Presentation for his talk What are recurrent memories about? Understanding their contents and links to mental health using computational text analysis, co-authored with M. Fernandes. Congratulations Ryan!
Brandon is a 5th year PhD candidate in the Developmental area who is supervised by Dr. Ori Friedman. Brandon's research focuses on how children reason about possibility, specifically about the possibility of strange and unlikely events. Why do children usually say that you can't have a pet lion or wear pajamas to work even though those things are possible, albeit rare and unusual? Adults tend to say that these things can happen even though we do not generally have any more experience with pet lions or wearing pajamas to work (pre-COVID anyway). So, Brandon is interested in why this shift happens as people grow older.
Specifically, Brandon wants to identify the kinds of information we consider when thinking about whether something is possible. Do we think about how it could happen? Or, do we think about whether it looks like something else that’s already happened before? Brandon's research suggests that the second option is probably true: children are more likely to say that an event is possible if it’s similar to something that they know has already happened, even if they really have no idea how these things could occur.
Brandon has also looked at how children reason about possibility in fantastical worlds, like dreams and stories. He has found that they think more things are possible in dreams and stories, but that they’re overall still fairly skeptical that weird or impossible things can happen. Also, they think that unlikely events are “more possible” than truly impossible events—even in a dream. But they’re most likely to say that events can happen if they’ve encountered those kinds of things in dreams and stories before. So, their reasoning here looks at lot like their reasoning about possibility in real life.
Improbable or impossible?
Brandon is also investigating how children think about the past and future, how they reason about stability of preferences and ownership over time, how children reason about the order of past events, and how children reason about object and territory ownership.
Brandon has presented his work at conferences such as the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD), the annual meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SPP), and the annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci). Brandon has also presented posters at the same conferences, as well as the Biennial Meeting of the Cognitive Development Society (CDS).
In 2019, Brandon travelled to the University of Ottawa to work on a collaboration with Dr. Cristina Atance, who he had worked with previously on children’s future-thinking. The project explores children’s beliefs about the stability of ownership and preferences over time. That project is on hold due to COVID-19, but Brandon is excited about the opportunity to continue this collaborative work.
Brandon's productivity over the last five years has been fuelled by the many research opportunities within the Department which he credits as his favourite thing about grad studies at University of Waterloo. Brandon says, "my supervisor and his lab are excellent, so I’ve been able to manage many more projects and collect much more data than I ever would have anticipated."
In addition to benefiting from the rich research environment, Brandon has also received the Certificate in University Teaching from the Centre for Teaching Excellence and had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate class. Brandon has enjoyed attending talks from some of the most renowned researchers in his field as well as having the opportunity to meet some of those researchers.
Brandon was initially intimidated by the idea of joining a "huge, productive department at a massive university" but he soon discovered that the Department is "tight-knit, and super friendly and welcoming." Brandon says choosing Psychology at UW was "easily one of my best decisions".
Read more about Brandon's research:
Anna is a 4th year PhD candidate in the Industrial Organizational area who is supervised by Dr. James Beck. Anna's research focuses on employee motivation and self-regulation. Specifically, Anna is interested in understanding how employees self-manage their productivity, including the motivational strategies they use to improve their performance (e.g., adjusting their state regulatory focus), and their motivational pitfalls (e.g., boredom).
Anna is also interested in applying motivation and self-regulation theories to problems involving technology at work. For her dissertation, she chose to study automation at work. The goal of this research is to understand employees’ perspectives on automation and thereby help employees and organizations prepare for and flourish in a changing world of work. Anna explores questions such as; When do employees recognize the benefits of automation at work? Why do employees often fail to recognize the automatability of their job? And, if employees do recognize their automatability, what are the catalysts and barriers to them preparing for potential career transitions?
Anna recently published a paper with her supervisor, Dr. James Beck, in which they developed a scale to measure people’s momentary motivational states. She will also be presenting a meta-analysis on boredom at work at SIOP in April 2021, a paper which I co-authored with another PhD student, Midori Nishioka.
Last year, just before the pandemic hit, Anna had the opportunity to participate in a research exchange with the support of the SSHRC Michael Smith Foreign Study Supplement and the University of Waterloo’s David Johnston International Experience Award. She worked with Dr. Gillian Yeo, a world-renowned expert in motivation and self-regulation research, at the University of Western Australia. During her three-month visit, Anna developed, with Dr. Yeo, a paper about automation-afforded time use decisions in organizations, a topic that is related to her PhD dissertation. Anna also became involved in Dr. Yeo’s work on undirected attention, a project she continues to contribute to from Canada. Unfortunately, this trip was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however it was still a life-changing experience.
Anna presents her research at conferences such as Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP), Academy of Management (AOM), and Canadian Psychological Association (CPA). Anna won the SIOP Student Travel Award two years in a row (2019 and 2020) and the CSIOP & RHR Kendall Award for Best Student Paper at CPA in 2019 for a paper titled: Development and Validation of the State Regulatory Focus Scale
Anna chose Psychology at UW for graduate studies because she wanted to work with Dr. Beck, who is a leading expert in motivation and self-regulation research. Anna had read several of his papers during her master’s and admired his creative and rigorous approach to research problems. During her time in Psychology at UW Anna has found "a lovely and supportive community of like-minded students who have made my experience rewarding. I will cherish the friendships I formed here for the rest of my life. I am also grateful for the professors in the IO department who both hold us to standards of excellence and also support and mentor us along the way. "
Sherman is a 4th year PhD candidate who is supervised by Joanne Wood in our Social Psychology area who is working on the processes that lay the groundwork for the growth of love. Specifically, his research focuses on personality differences in people’s communication tendencies.
In one line of research, Sherman studies how the personality trait of agreeableness affects people’s expressions of hurt feelings. Agreeable people are nice, sympathetic, and warm. They are also very trusting—they have faith that their partner loves them through thick and thin. Sherman posits that this feature of agreeable people promotes positive responses when their feelings are hurt by their romantic partner, which may ultimately help resolve hurt feelings. In his studies, he has found that compared to less agreeable people, highly agreeable people are (a) more forgiving, (b) less likely to blame their partner, (c) more likely to express hurt feelings in positive-direct ways (e.g., calmly discuss the problem with their partner), and (d) less likely to express hurt feelings in negative-direct ways (e.g., seeking revenge).
In another line of research, Sherman investigates how agreeable people express affection in romantic relationships. Agreeable people are known to have high quality relationships, but why? Sherman proposes that agreeable people attain satisfying relationships by expressing affection in ways that are especially focused on their partner’s needs and interests (e.g., doing partner favours, making them their favourite meals). In several studies, he found that not only are agreeable people more affectionate than people lower in agreeableness, agreeable people also express affection in ways that specifically address their partner’s needs.
Sherman has shared his research at the conference organized by the Society of Personality and Social Psychology in the United States. He won the Graduate Student Poster Award and received a Graduate Student Travel Award two years ago. This year, his research symposium was accepted (~30% acceptance rate). In this symposium, in addition to presenting his own work, Sherman brought together other researchers to present work on the topic of the benefits of responsiveness in romantic relationships.
Sherman also presented his research at the conference organized by the International Association of Relationship Research last year. He was also selected as one of the 16 Attendees to the Love Consortium Workshop. At the workshop, he had the opportunity to learn from leading researchers in relationship science about the latest trends in the field, as well as to network with other graduate students from all over the world (e.g., New Zealand, Canada, the U.S.).
Check out more of Sherman's research:
Sherman cites the rich resources available at UW to conduct rigorous research as one of his favourite things about being a student at UW along with the quiet and tranquillity of the campus. Sherman picked UW for graduate studies based on the excellence of the faculty members and graduate students he met when he visited as a prospective student and he mentioned the people in the Department, specifically his supervisor and everyone in the Social area, as his favourite things about the Department.