When she isn't in the laboratory researching comparative learning, Assistant Professor of Psychology Rachel Blaser, PhD, is taking stunning, award-wining photographs—including one that took first place in a National Geographic contest. She says photography serves as a creative balance to her analytical lab work.
You are an award-winning photographer and your art is currently on exhibit in Carlsbad. Tell us a little about the photographs on display. How does your photography relate to your academic pursuits?
The gallery is showing a small collection of my photos from Japan. Japan is one of my favorite places to visit (in large part, I admit, for the food) and I enjoy taking pictures as a sort of narrative. I have no moral qualms about embellishing the truth on occasion—that's what makes travelers' tales interesting.
In an immediate sense, I mostly use photography for balance. I started playing around with it when I was in graduate school, and found that it provided a nice break from sitting in a lab quantifying things. But more generally, of course everything we do interacts, and no discipline is really dissociable from any other. This is particularly true of psychology, since the way we perceive, interpret and understand the world affects every human endeavor. So, of course, what I know about memory and perception tremendously influences my approach to photography, and conversely, taking pictures has led to a whole host of new questions that I would love to one day have the time and resources to study scientifically—but for now, as in graduate school, mostly it just affects my research by keeping me sane enough to continue doing it.
Among other recognitions, you won first place in a 2009 National Geographic photo contest. Tell us about your winning piece.
If you'd asked me in high school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a photographer for National Geographic. Mostly, this was with an eye toward exotic international travel, so it's sort of ironic that the photo they chose was taken within walking distance of the house where I grew up, outside of less-than-exotic Wayne, Nebraska. I had just finished graduate school in Hawaii where (not unlike California) most people aren't entirely certain whether Nebraska is a national park, a state, or maybe a territory in Canada. I had friends that had never seen fireflies, and my goal in taking the picture was technically just to capture something worth showing to them—plus maybe a hint of vindictiveness about proving that sunny beaches aren't the only beauty worth admiring. The Midwest is underappreciated. I enjoyed the opportunity to show people that growing up in rural Nebraska had its highlights.
I notice from your art that you have traveled extensively. In addition to your photography, does your travel have any impact on your work at USD?
Well, life as a professor isn't quite as glamorous as that of a travel photographer. I generally only manage about one trip per year, and it's almost always for a professional conference. (I just use photography to make it look glamorous). Of course, the chance to discuss common interests with other scientists is really helpful for both my teaching and my research. Besides that, in many ways my current research interests are fairly independent of culture—neurons work pretty much like neurons whether you're an American or a rat or a fish—but travel has certainly shaped the questions themselves. If not for international travel, I wouldn't have studied linguistics, and so probably would never have become interested in learning. Mostly, though, I think that traveling enriches my research and teaching in ways that are difficult to plan or predict. The broader my experience with the world, the better resource I can be for students that come to me with their own ideas, questions and pursuits.
Tell us about your research with zebrafish. What are you hoping to learn about cognitive behavior and how are students involved in your research?
The goal of my current project is to figure out why nicotine is so motivating. One possibility is that nicotine just feels really good, but another possibility is that nicotine mostly works to reduce anxiety and other unpleasant feelings. I'm trying to test this on zebrafish by comparing their response to nicotine when they are in stressful or anxiety-producing contexts (a novel, bright tank) and when they are in less stressful situations (a darker tank). I'm not just interested in how specific drugs work, but more generally how the brain learns to associate stimuli with outcomes. In this study, nicotine is the "outcome" in question, but hopefully the results of the experiment will apply to the bigger question of how fish learn, and how closely this resembles learning in humans.
This semester, I have three students working on the nicotine experiment and another three students studying how rats solve spatial problems. The students learn how to handle and administer drugs to animals, how to follow experimental protocols with lots of different groups and treatments, and how to record and analyze behavioral data.
Why is USD a great choice for a prospective student interested in psychology?
We have a great psychology program at USD. There are 14 excellent faculty members with interests ranging across the entire field. It's not an easy program—you'll have to write a lot of papers and do a lot of analytical thinking, but you'll have a new perspective on how people (and other animals) work by the time you get to the other side. In addition to requiring statistics and two research courses, we also have about 15-20 students working on independent or faculty research projects each semester. So, any student that is motivated to gain research experience will have plenty of opportunities! There are also a lot of ways to get involved in professional internships and community service through the program.
What possibilities do you see with the new behavioral neuroscience major?
I think that there will be a wonderful synergy between behavioral neuroscience and traditional psychology majors, and I look forward to the extra spark that students with diverse perspectives will bring to our classrooms. Hopefully the major will attract a new group of smart and motivated students to USD, as well as provide new options for current students who are interested in biology, psychology or health sciences. Because all of the behavioral neuroscience majors will be required to do two semesters of research either on or off campus, the program may also help to strengthen connections between faculty and students at USD and researchers at neighboring institutions like SDSU, UCSD and Scripps. Ultimately, we think that this will be a very popular major, and that our students will be well prepared for further study in the health sciences, psychological sciences, or a variety of other disciplines.
You co-directed the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience Program, which enables students to complete research projects under the guidance of faculty mentors. What makes undergraduate research so valuable?
I think that involvement in undergraduate research serves two important functions. First, it keeps intrinsic motivation up by letting students actually do what they're supposed to be learning to do. Participation helps students to understand that the production of new knowledge is an accessible and active process, not a sterile procedure conducted long ago and/or far away by stodgy old people in lab coats. The practical knowledge gained from doing research makes the more abstract content like lectures and journal articles more comprehensible and relevant, which then makes them more enjoyable and interesting to think about.
Second, my field of study is learning, and I strongly believe that the most fundamental learning comes through trial and error—in doing something and getting it wrong, and figuring out how to get it right. I think that the core of a university education is habit formation. It's hard to establish a routine for analytical thought, or a comfortable understanding of how science works without the chance to get your hands dirty and play with it. Once that foundation is in place, I think students are able to get more out of their lectures and books, and use the information in more sophisticated ways.
- Anne Malinoski ‘11