Open Your Mind: A Q&A with graduate student Timothy Leonard

Appearing at regular intervals, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University faculty champion fresh ways of thinking in teaching and research excellence. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Timothy Leonard, a graduate student who is researching mechanisms behind memory formation. Leonard has received an MA in psychology and the Neuroscience Graduate Diploma from York, and is in the final year of his PhD in psychology.

photo of timothy leonard

Timothy Leonard

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. My graduate work has centred on identifying brain signals that underlie memory formation. The primary methods for this research involve measuring brain signals while at the same time monitoring visual search by tracking where the eye is gazing. I do this before, during and after learning.

Our lab primarily works with visual memory tasks: finding objects in cluttered scenes. For measuring performance, we rely in large part on the eye movements and trial dependent measures, such as the time it takes to find a specific object, to help decide if a given trial was remembered or not. It is an interesting intersection of a few different disciplines, primarily psychology and neuroscience.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. Throughout my undergrad, I had an intense interest in behaviour and the brain. Through class work and volunteering in Dr. Kerry Kawakami’s Social Cognition Lab, I quickly realized I loved experimentation and analysis. Continuing to graduate school to pursue research in cognitive psychology was a natural decision given my interests.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. Understanding brain signals that contribute to successful learning has far-reaching consequences. I’m most excited about the possibility of my work contributing to clinical work on Alzheimer's disease. Knowing more about which brain signals do, and do not, support memory formation may help inform and develop future interventions or even aid in diagnosis.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. Only a handful of labs around the world has access to the combination of techniques and technologies that our lab uses. We are also very lucky in our partnership with the Centre for Vision Research at York for the resources and vision expertise they provide. Due to these factors, we are able to address unique questions. For example, last year we were the first to publish about a brain signal, known to be important for remembering places travelled, to be implicated in visual search. This opens up a fascinating area of research for us, in that we can now investigate this important brain signal through eye movements, and we are very excited about it!

picture of coloured wave forms depicting short-wave ripples in the brain

A schematic depicting short-wave ripples in the brain during Leonard's research at York U

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. Because we use a unique combination of techniques and technologies, we often have to develop methods to solve new problems. I absolutely love the challenge of working on approaches that others haven’t tried yet.

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. There is a brain signal in the hippocampus that I am particularly interested in. Early in my PhD we set up an experiment to try and record this signal during resting periods (15-plus minutes of darkness). Based on previous research, theoretically linking this signal with memory consolidation during sleep, we knew we would likely observe them during resting periods that followed learning in the visual search experiment. However, we also recorded during the visual search task itself, when other brain signals are supposed to dominate.

Sure enough, we observed this particular brain state during resting periods; however, it was also present during active visual search behaviour. Not what we were expecting! This was something never before observed and extremely exciting for all of us involved.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry. Can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. A challenge that most researchers will encounter is discovering something outside of what was expected. Being able to distinguish truly interesting and significant events from noise, and being able to contextualize unexpected findings within the existing literature, is a skill that takes a long time to develop. Training myself to be my biggest critic, and building a deep understand of the existing knowledge (literature) around my project, are two skills that have been exceptionally useful as I encounter unexpected results.

photo of the CN Tower from a distance with towers around itQ. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. A major challenge with our research is the sheer amount of time series data, and the multidimensional behavioural and neuronal data we collect. A big part of success in my research has been learning to effectively use the right tools for data exploration, and how to properly apply statistics to this type of datA. As I’ve built up these skill sets, I’ve begun to see how they can be applied to problems outside of my research. For example, I was able to integrate a number of techniques from my neural analysis into a product for predicting rush-hour periods on Toronto’s roads, for a team I have been working with (rueview.io).

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. My research falls somewhere in the middle of neuroscience, psychology, bio-engineering, statistics and computer science.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. Early in my undergraduate career, I started to consider transferring into computer science/engineering (I’ve been programming computers since I was young). However, my curiosity around the brain and behaviour and love of data analysis pushed me to continue towards a graduate career in psychology/neuroscience.

Q. Are you involved with teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. Last semester I had the great pleasure of working on new course material with Dr. Kari Hoffman. It was Intermediate Research Methods (Psychology) with an emphasis on neurophysiological recording and signal processing. We were teaching undergraduates, many with no previous programming experience, how to use MATLAB software to analyze and test brain signals. Many of the concepts I taught in the course were concepts I had to learn myself just a few years ago when I was starting out in my lab. It was an amazing experience, and I think many of the students came out of the course with knowledge and techniques they likely would not have otherwise had exposure to.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. No matter how excited you are to embark on and start a new project, plan, plan, plan.

Plan for what can go wrong, and how after you fix it, it can go wrong again. For every minute of quality planning before starting an experiment, you’ll save five minutes trying to fix bad planning after you’ve run the experiment.

Q. Why did you choose York to pursue your graduate studies?

A. For me, the calibre of the laboratory I’m working in, and the type of research it is engaged in, was the primary reason I chose York for graduate work. The resources and Faculty specializations were also a factor.

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. I started my master’s research in 2010.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. I’m a huge fan of comedy and science fiction. Most movies and books at that intersection have always resonated with me — Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Gilliam. I’m also big documentary nut — Werner Herzog’s documentary work being especially notable.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. I just finished Stranger Things; I think Gaten Matarazzo is now one of my favorite actors. I don’t read as much as I used to, hoping to pick it back up once I graduate!

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. I would love to have a long chat with Ray Kurzweil. I’ve been following his work for a long time, and find his opinions on progress completely fascinating.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. When I have free time I tend towards taking and editing pictures. I love the challenge of working with film, but also the flexibility of digital, so I usually split my time between the two types.

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