Imagine that today, you’re making a cup of coffee, and you reach for a white mug. When you make another cup of coffee tomorrow, will you be quicker to find a clean mug if it’s white as well? One morning, Ariel Kershner grabbed a coffee mug, and that question popped into her head. “If I used a purple mug yesterday, then I’m more likely to look for a purple mug today when I open my cabinet, which seemed like an odd thing to me,” she says. It helps that Kershner, a second-year PhD student in the University of Iowa’s department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, is studying how our attention is captured by things that are already in our memory. If anyone was positioned to find an answer, it would be her. But how do you study decisions based on attention and memory, two invisible and idiosyncratic concepts? Kershner’s project currently relies on timed computer activities in which participants repeatedly search for objects on a screen. The end goal is to “build up these statistical regularities that mugs tend to be white. So with the next mug, you’ll find it faster if it is also white rather than another color,” she clarifies.
Kershner first became interested in this field in high school when she found herself captivated by a spontaneous bookstore purchase about psychology’s history. After undergraduate work studying learning transfer in rats and performing attentional capture research, Kershner made the leap from the East Coast to Iowa. She couldn’t pass up the chance to study with the University of Iowa’s “vision group,” four professors who perform visual attention, visual perception, and visual memory research. So far, Kershner has greatly benefitted from this group’s mentorship, with each member offering unique expertise and guidance as she continues to test and expand upon her research ideas. Her work began with questions of categorical cuing and expanded into context specificity—or as she explains it, “Do you learn that white cups are only more likely in your apartment versus your friend’s apartment, where green cups are more likely?”—and inter-trial effects—“How much of this assumption is based on the absolute last cup you saw, and are you biased by that one?”
Despite the limitations inflicted by COVID-19, Kershner has been fortunate to continue her research via online tests, where she studies participants’ speed and accuracy with finding objects. Once she is able to welcome participants back for in-person experiments, she plans to utilize eye movement tracking and EEG studies, guided by her current graduate course on EEG data analysis. In the limited hours when she isn’t in the lab or preparing for her comprehensive exam later this year, Kershner is also strengthening her teaching skills. She recalls how the first student she tutored “finally got this concept that we spent three sessions talking about.” After that, she was “hooked.”
At Iowa, Kershner is continuing to develop her teaching capabilities, working as a TA for multiple undergraduate courses and completing a graduate certificate in teaching. “Being in the classroom is fun,” she says. “You get to sense whenever they’re confused and when they really got the topic and the concept has just clicked for them.” This passion for teaching isn’t limited to higher education, either. As part of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee in the psychology department, she co-founded a number of initiatives. Working with Shana Harris, a fellow psychology graduate student, Kershner designed a program intended to get local high school students interested in psychology, which will hopefully get off the ground in fall 2021. As she explains, “When I was in high school, I thought of psychology as strictly therapy and not as something that we do research about. With this program, graduate students are going to be mentoring individual high school students and helping them look at some psychology research, maybe form a research question, and read papers.” As she hopes to pursue a career at a teaching college, these opportunities have helped her strengthen these skill sets and expand upon her academic work.
As a recipient of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, a highly competitive five-year award, Kershner will be able to continue her graduate certificate and DEI work with protected time for lab work and dissertation writing. Kershner applied for the award once before, in her final year as an undergraduate, but she was not selected. This time, she worked with the Graduate Student Success office to prepare her fellowship application, and she credits them with helping her strengthen it: “[The office] turned my whole application around and made it sound much stronger, more like I was thinking toward how everything could be applied to the future.” With this fellowship in hand, her future is looking especially bright.