Professor Spotlights: Prof. Anastasia Kiyonaga
What classes do you teach, which class would you say would be your favorite?
I teach Cogs 17, which is lower division neurobiology cognition, and I also teach a course that I developed myself, Cogs 160, called Neural Imaging of Cognition, which takes advantage of many of the kinds of cognitive concepts that we first explore early on in Cogs 17 and the basic neuroscience concepts. It specifically focuses on Human Neuro-Imaging approaches and looks at empirical research that tests these cognitive questions. So it’s really just understanding the kind of modern day research that’s going on in human cognitive neuroscience, that addresses some of the basic neuroscience questions we talked about [in Cogs]17. And then I will also teach some graduate level seminars like doing a scientific writing seminar in the winter.
But there are just so many different advantages to both of those undergrad classes that I just described, and Cogs 17 is a much bigger class. And so, I regret that especially in the remote environment I don’t get to have as much in person interaction with the students, as I would like. But at the same time, I love it because I am just continually amazed at the creative work that the students come up with in some of the activities that students do during their discussion sections and the dedication and creativity that students can bring even in this big class where we don’t have a ton of one on one time.
I’ve been doing research for more than a decade now. And so, I guess some of these topics may be so old to me that it’s really fun and really exciting to see brand new college students first getting a glimpse into the world of neuroscience and research. So, I love that you know the excitement that I see some of the new students that are getting this for the first time. But then my [Cogs]160 is not exactly a seminar but it’s a smaller class. So I get to really interact with the students more, and they develop their own projects throughout the course of the quarter where they can take their own interests and the kinds of topics that they’d be interested to pursue in neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience, and they actually turn that into a puzzle for a project. It’s just very different experiences but both are really fun and rewarding for me to see the students put the knowledge into action in different ways.
What was the path to getting where you are now and what got you interested in the topic that you’re working in?
Okay, I’m going to try to answer this in a somewhat concise way, but I tend to go on a long winding road when I answer a question like this because my path was not particularly linear. I didn’t just go from undergrad neuroscience research into grad school and then a PhD – I started out as a more clinically focused undergrad. So I was a psychology and religious studies major and minor in college. At the time, I was interested in social services and counseling and potentially being involved in more clinical and direct service work. And that’s what I did after I graduated from college; I worked in homeless and mental health counseling. That was where I guess I first had the spark that intrigued me in terms of doing research, because I was working with clinical populations specifically with homeless women who were diagnosed with a number of severe and chronic mental disorders.
We use a different classification scheme now for diagnosing and treating these sorts of behavioral disorders, and I don’t want to say anything that is not consistent with the way that we currently evaluate and treat mental disorders, but at the time I was working with people who were diagnosed with bipolar, or schizophrenia, or major depression. These women who all would have some diagnosis, but it manifested in all of these different ways. And all of them have these totally different backgrounds that all ended up, ultimately, manifesting and then having this disorder. And I just became really stuck on understanding what could have been going on Neurobiologically to create these behavioral disorders that they were having, and how so many different backgrounds all manifest in these sorts of behavioral disorders. So I really enjoyed doing direct service and social service work like that. But I also felt like I needed to understand what source was ultimately giving rise to these behaviors and the associated suffering that these people were going through. And so I just after doing that sort of work for several years, I evolved into thinking that, for me, the right path would really be to do research into the neural basis of these of behavior, and that would ultimately be the most crucial use of my interests and abilities.
But at the time, I hadn’t really focused on that sort of research as an undergrad, and my coursework wasn’t focused on neurobiology and neurosciences. It was much more clinically oriented. So I needed to do a little bit more coursework and have a little bit more experience. At which point, I ended up pursuing a master’s degree in human development, which is basically an interdisciplinary type of degree — it was technically in an education department — but a degree that allowed me to take coursework in neuroscience and biology, along with more psychology and cognition, so that I could just get more of the vocabulary and a basic understanding of where we stood as a field in terms of the kinds of questions that I had developed when I was working with these populations. So when I was doing that degree, I also started working as a research assistant in a cognitive neuroscience lab and getting my first taste of the research environment, because I hadn’t really done that prior to that as an undergrad. And so it just sort of evolved from there. I’ve worked in a handful of different labs, getting different kinds of experience firstly developmental lab. That was looking at the effects of prenatal drug and alcohol exposure on later cognitive outcomes. And then I worked on — I don’t know if we’ve considered a meditation lab — but I’ve worked on other labs have looked at the influence of mindfulness and meditation training on a number of outcomes. But the ones that were intriguing to me were attention and memory of the effects of this sort of this sort of training. And throughout the lab work and the research, I more and more honed my interest on the basic processes underlying cognitive functions like memory and attention. So I started out very practical practically oriented, very clinically oriented, and wanting to be there on the ground working with people, but progressively got more and more specific in my neuroscience interests and my basic science interest. I ended up going to grad school to study — not necessarily with a clinical focus — just kind of the cognitive mechanism memory and attention, and that remains similar to what I am doing now.
What kind of research do you do and is there a way for undergrads to get involved?
My career evolved in a way that I became interested in basic cognitive functions that underlie memory and attention. So my lab would be considered a cognitive neuroscience lab where we do human cognition research, which you can do on a number of species and formats. I work with mainly healthy adult human populations, and the methods that I use, primarily in my work are fMRI Neuroimaging. And I also use something called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, which is what we call a non-invasive Neuro-modulation or brain stimulation method to complement the findings that we can get with human Neuroimaging. Basically, we will use Neuroimaging to identify brain regions as networks that we think might be important to some cognitive function and interest, and then we’ll combine that with Neuro-stimulation, which has very temporary effects but can be used to causally perturb, temporarily perturb, brain activity in these regions of interest to examine whether the activations that we observed with fMRI are causally underlying the functions that we’re interested in and whether they’re necessary to the functions that we’re interested in. I do both of these in combination with developing what we call behavioral task paradigms. So the first step for any one of my studies is identifying the cognitive function that we want to study and devising a way to test it in people, typically with some sort of a computer-based cognitive task, where I combine demands across domains of cognition. Like I’ll combine a memory demand with some sort of perceptual or action demand in one task, and then first test the sort of behavioral implications of the task by having participants just do the task without being scanned or stimulated.
And then, after a degree of behavioral testing, we’ll combine the behavior and brain activity, and the brain stimulation. Right now, it’s a tough time to do Human Neuro-imaging and Neuro-stimulation research, and it’s a tough time to do many kinds of research. So currently, my lab is mainly limited to developing these behavioral tasks that I was just describing, and administering them online, and using a number of online testing platforms to mainly just address cognitive questions with behavior alone, in preparation to combine those with your imaging and stimulation, when we’re back to back to a somewhat normal way of functioning research wise.
I get undergrads emailing me often about their interest in the lab, and I have several undergrads who had no prior experience. Some had taken Cogs 17 with me in the past, and I think that’s a great way to get involved in any research with any professor. Having taken their class, so that they know a little something about you, but they also know that you have the background of the course that they taught, and that you have some relevant knowledge to contribute to their research. I love to hear from undergrads! It’s a little tough to start out new projects right now without any opportunity to really be in person. But we won’t be in this situation forever.
What do you think has been the highlight of your career so far?
I don’t think that I have a single highlight especially because my career has not been that linear. There are so many parts of it that I really enjoyed. Before I went to grad school and was working in that meditation lab, I had such amazing opportunities and experiences to go to a number of different settings like meditation retreat centers, but also your military bases where we were implementing meditation training as part of their pre deployment training. I was also doing this sort of training in schools in Philadelphia, and I can’t even say how interesting and fun that was for me as an opportunity. In grad school, I was doing a totally different kind of work – no more going to meditation retreat centers and Colorado. But I formed a cohort with the other graduate students in my program, and it was so fun and enriching because we just learned so much from each. I learned how collaborative research can be and should be in just having all these colleagues from different backgrounds, with different experiences, who I could ask for help and then they could ask me for help on the things that I knew about.
I just thought of grad school as a lot of fun. That’s not to say that it wasn’t really hard and exhausting at points, and it might not be for everyone if you don’t love the research and if you’re not really passionate about it. But there were a number of fun little discoveries that I made in grad school that were really fulfilling. There’s really no particular highlight because every part of my career has been challenging and exciting different way. And now that I’m here, it’s an amazing dream for any sort of cogs/neuro grad student to end up in a faculty position at UCSD. It’s such a dream job to be here and working with the students here who can be so ambitious and creative and getting to run my own lab where I get to just ask whatever questions are the most intriguing to me. It’s just a dream job to be in.
What would you say would be the hardest challenge that you faced?
Just like I don’t have a particular highlight, I’m not sure if there’s any one challenge, but there is a lot of rejection involved in this sort of research. There’s a lot of not finding what you thought you would find or what you hoped you would find. So there’s a lot of failure to meet your expectations about your research. At times during grad school and during my postdoc, that would feel kind of insurmountable because it would feel like my research was never going to work out for this one paper that I was trying to publish, or that it was just never going to get published because the reviewers just weren’t getting how important it was. That’s always been really hard and continues to be really hard.
But then, I think I underwent a fundamental shift, maybe in my postdoc, where I started to appreciate the learning value of these unexpected findings. I started to appreciate how every sort of rejection in a publication can improve the quality of it, because you take others’ input into account and can better iterative and improve your work. And also, unexpected findings, can lead to discovery and put you on new paths of inquiry. So there’s no one particular challenge. But you do have to work to get accustomed to and comfortable with not finding what you hoped you would and making the best of that.
If you can change anything about your career so far and go back in time, is there anything you would change or anything you would have fixed?
This will be a little bit abstract, but I think I would try to take on a little bit less at once. At times I — and I know I’m not the only one who does this — I’ll get so excited about a number of different projects and a number of different questions that I’ll try to do them all at the same time, and then that comes at the expense of really being able to do any one of them very well or being able to follow through and finish any of them. So I think I would try to go back and tell myself that I don’t have to do all of it all the time all at once and to pace myself a little bit more. To go a little bit easier on myself in terms of what I expected to be able to do in a given in a given period of time.
Do you have any advice you would want to give to give to the students in general or for incoming students?
Something that I find myself telling a lot of students is to be persistent. This kind of relates to what I was saying about the number of challenges and this sort of consistency of facing challenges and unexpected findings, but I don’t want to give people the impression that it’s all projection and no success. You don’t want to let yourself get too deterred by any one roadblock, because we all have encountered so many of them. I can’t speak for everyone though, and there can be a lot of reasons that some people might have an easier path than others.
But I think tenacity and persistence is a really important skill to cultivate. Being unafraid, or even if you’re afraid, trying to overcome a fear of speaking out and trying to look out for yourself. Don’t be afraid to contact people if you’re interested in working with them. Don’t be afraid to write that email or, when we’re back in person to, actually approach a person to talk to them to get advice. There’s a lot of overcoming hesitancy. It can be uncomfortable for me and a lot of people to stick with it when you feel deterred, so a big piece of advice would be to try to overcome it and stick with it.
What is the weirdest thing that you’ve witnessed in your field?
I don’t even know where to start. I mean there are just so many ways that this whole field can be weird. There have been some unfortunate instances of — and this is actually a big problem with the field right now, because there is a lot of pressure to publish and it is so competitive — that even without any malicious intent, people believe so much in their theories and their expected findings, and they feel so sure that if everything were done rightly they should see the thing that they want to see. So there have been some of these instances of data being massaged in a way that is not quite accurate, and that’s a real shame because you don’t ever have to do that. And it’s just bad and unnecessary for everyone, because the point of science is discovery.
So, that is a real shame but I really want to go with something that’s a little bit more optimistic. There are all sorts of weird findings and weird people in the field, and you can’t even consider it a bit weird because anything goes. There’s just such a wide array of ways to do this kind of work and such a wide array of questions that you can ask and types of people who might be involved in doing it, that the concept of weird almost doesn’t exist.