BIO

June 2018 Member Spotlight: Maria Almoite, B.S. (Brain Injury Research  Lab)

Maria Almoite, B.S. graduated Summa Cum Laude with a B.S. in Psychology from Minnesota State University-Mankato. At an early age, she was enthralled with the intricacies of the human brain. It wasn’t until she moved to the U.S. without knowing any English that she became committed to learning more about how the brain works. In an attempt to quench her curiosity, she started doing scientific research. In fact, she was able to amass broad research experience both internationally and nationally during her undergraduate career. Her passion in scientific research intensified after completing a National Science Foundation (NSF) research fellowship in cognitive neuroscience at UW-Madison. To broaden her experience, Maria wanted to expand her research work from psychology to medicine, which led her to the BIRL lab. Moreover, she wanted to gain clinical experience and apply her research knowledge to the lab. She enjoyed being able to see first-hand how scientific research impacts the patients’ quality of life. Her primary research interests are improving classifications of traumatic brain injuries, localizing psychological functions to brain regions using neuroimaging, individual differences in working memory, and the interactions between attention and working memory performance.


LONG VERSION: BIO & RESEARCH INTERESTS
2015



Growing up in a developing country was a humbling experience. At age 15, my family decided to emigrate from the Philippines to America in hopes of chasing the American Dream. Moving to a foreign country has been a blessing, but not without its challenges—not knowing the language, culture, or anyone made it difficult for me to understand who I am and how I fit into this new world. Aware of my otherness amongst the majority, I spent most of my time observing others, and wondering if they think like I do. After taking an undergraduate course in human memory, I realized that cognitive neuroscience answers some of the greatest questions we have about our very existence. How do we reconcile our archaic ideas of soul, mind, and memory with contemporary theories of infinitesimal electrical bursts within cells? Even in today’s modern society with our technological advances, we have yet to gain a full understanding of the human brain.


At an early age, I’ve always enjoyed the complexity of problem solving. From the intricate mechanisms of the brain to simple queries about human behavior, I’ve always had an insatiable desire for learning. These curiosities led me to academic research. As an undergraduate, I gained broad research training by being involved in several research laboratories. In spring 2011, I worked with Dr. Vinai Norasakkunkit on an international study in the field of cultural psychology. Our research examined cross-cultural variation in the experiences of anger and shame in the USA, Belgium, and Japan. This study formed a novel approach to analyzing cultural variation by conceiving emotional experience as conditional. As a research assistant, I was responsible for creating the debriefing form, overseeing data collection for the entire USA, and communicating with other research collaborators in Belgium and Japan regarding the progress of our study. Utilizing my background and knowledge in application to scientific research and collaborating with international researchers is something that I hope continues to be a part of my research responsibilities in future projects. Another laboratory I participated in was Dr. Kristie Campana’s Social Psychology and Industrial/Organizational Psychology lab. Our study explored the role of gender and race in the workplace. As a research assistant, I assisted in the development of the questionnaire used for our study. I gained valuable insight in regards to the common issues that minorities, women, and those with disabilities face in the workplace through this experience. As an underrepresented woman and a minority, I am highly interested in attaining equal opportunity in the workplace for women, the underrepresented and minority, and those with disabilities. Gaining research training in various research laboratories allowed me to attain a more holistic perspective in the field of psychology.


My passion in cognitive neuroscience stems from my desire to fathom my own brain. Being bilingual, I’ve always been intrigued with my brain's ability to separate my dominant language from my second language in speech production and comprehension. What mechanisms underlie the encoding process of new information? These experiences have sparked my interest in the field of cognitive neuroscience; more specifically, memory and learning. To gain a more in-depth understanding of human memory, I joined Dr. Moses Langley’s Visual Recognition Object and Memory lab. Last spring, we applied the recognition without identification paradigm (Peynircioglu, 1990) to probe the features found in memory traces for pictorial information. We aimed to determine if the recognition without identification effect would extend to a task in which the identification of pictures is hindered through rapid, masked presentation. This semester, we are trying to analyze the effect of visual structure on memory by generating images based on mathematical theorems. We want to know if people tend to remember geometric visual stimuli better when it follows a specific geometric theorem than if it does not. For both studies, I was responsible for collecting and creating the visual stimuli and data collection. My participation in this lab allowed me to understand how we cognitively process information and how human memory works.


Oral presentation for National Science Foundation
In addition to memory, I am also interested in learning. More specifically, I am interested in investigating the potential benefits of technology in classrooms. Technological advances have revolutionized the way we communicate with one another giving rise to online learning. Despite the concerns against technology use in classrooms, it is evident that technology holds practical and effective application for classroom learning, if properly integrated. To explore the efficacy of technology in classrooms, I have been working in Dr. Karla Lassonde’s Cognitive Psychology lab for three years. When I joined the lab, I adapted a project already established that scrutinized memory for text. Promoted to lead researcher the following semester, I expanded our previous study to evaluate the effects of different note-taking methods (handwriting vs. typing) by having students watch a TED talk video (approximately 20 minutes) to simulate the natural classroom settings. I was responsible for training new members in our team, for the IRB application, research design, data collection, and statistical analysis. Furthermore, I gained solid experience in professionally communicating our data through poster presentations in three different symposia: local, regional, and national.



Psych photoshoot
This past summer, I was selected to participate in the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I joined Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher’s Cognitive Neuroscience laboratory and was directly mentored by her. My summer research project explored how online communication democratizes small group discussions. I was responsible for creating our IRB proposal, research design, and developing a new coding mechanism that effectively analyzes our transcripts’ number of turns, total word length, and percentage of chat contributions of participants. During that time, I also gained exposure in different research laboratories, covering a multitude of areas such as: visual psychophysics, affective neuroscience, social psychology, neurophysiology, and psycholinguistics. At the end of the program, I presented my research during an oral presentation at the Psychology Research Experience Program (PREP) symposium. In addition, my research was also published in the REUPREP Journal 2013. The skills and knowledge I gained over the summer, along with the mentorship of Dr. Gernsbacher and her expertise, inspired me to continue my work on cognition and its application on education. As such, my current research project attempts to investigate the instructional ramifications of technology integration in classroom learning, memory, and sustained attention by investigating the transferability of the new findings on the “testing effect” (McDaniel, Thomas, Agarwal, McDermott, & Roediger, 2013).



Along with my interest in research, I am also very passionate about teaching. Coming from a different cultural background where education is a privilege, denied to many, allowed me to gain a deep appreciation when it comes to academic opportunities. Having lived in both a developing country and an industrialized country was an eye-opening experience. The enormous disparities with education, access, and resources have a huge detrimental impact on an individual’s ability to succeed in a society. It is my mission to attempt to close the achievement gap by being an active participant in my community in promoting education, innovation, and scientific pursuits. I am currently in the process of founding a university-based philanthropic organization that promotes education by providing school materials to developing countries. A group of students and I will be asking people to donate educational materials (e.g., books, notebooks, pens, etc.) that will be sent to a developing country. We hope to encourage community involvement and promote education advocacy. I am confident that our organization will endorse education, foster global learning, increase cultural awareness and international relations.






My nomination for Dr. Langley was chosen for Best Research mentor
Outside academics, my extracurricular activities encompass leadership and community involvement. As a freshman, I was a student ambassador for my university. I gave campus tours to prospective students and participated in student panels. In my junior year, I was the marketing intern for the Women’s and LGBT Center. I was responsible for marketing our upcoming events and provide talks on important social issues. Currently, I am the marketing coordinator at the Regional Center for Entrepreneurial Facilitation, a non-profit organization that offers free business consultations and marketing services to those who are starting up new businesses in southern Minnesota. We also teamed up with the College of Business as a part of the Small Business Development Center committee to provide free services and resources to small businesses through innovation. As the only student on the committee, I was able to provide novel insight to the program development. This valuable experience allowed me to be actively involved in my community by helping others establish their own business and supporting the growth of small businesses in southern Minnesota.



In addition to my philanthropic pursuits, I have actively sought experiences to improve my teaching aptitude and gain direct experiences teaching others. In 2011, I worked with the Department of Education as an AVID tutor (Advanced via Individual Determination) at Mankato West High School in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields and social sciences. These positions go beyond the traditional tutoring model, charged with engaging high school students in a higher level of analytical thinking. Students presented their questions using the highest level of “Bloom’s Taxonomy of Questioning” while their peers were encouraged to ask questions that will help them derive to the conclusion. My role is to encourage the student presenter and student peers to have a meaningful objective dialogue as they work through the problem. This dynamic approach promotes collaborative learning. Ultimately, my goal was to enhance the understanding of students in the STEM fields and inspire high school students to attend a post-secondary institution. My teaching experience also extends to my undergraduate experience. Currently, I am the teaching assistant (T.A.) for both Introduction to Psychological Science and Psychological Research Methods and Design. I am responsible for grading assignments and exams, holding office hours to provide one-on-one assistance to students, conducting exam review sessions, and synthesizing course content that provides guidelines on lecture information, APA design and format, or SPSS. My teaching experience has allowed me to improve my skills in teaching and gather a better understanding of the subject material.



Throughout this journey, I have faced and overcome significant adversities that frequently challenged my strength and abilities. I’ve learned that research, teaching, mentorship, and actively giving back to my community is a significant aspect of my life. Earning a college degree changed my life by affording me an opportunity to advance my education while providing the flexibility of devoting more time on research. Moreover, I hope to actively seek opportunities to teach and increase the diversity of women, underrepresented, minorities, and those with disabilities in pursuing STEM fields.

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