Neuroscience senior Matt Coleman
Neuroscience senior Matt Coleman is approaching his Honors Thesis as another step towards a life dedicated to research. If all goes according to plan, the project will result in his second publication, and Matt is hoping to use his experiences to unlock future opportunities.
Matt’s project is titled “The Effects of Positive Prediction Error and Active Learning on Memory,” and studies how these two factors interact to influence recognition and spatial memory. In the context of his work, positive prediction error occurs when individuals are told rewards will exceed their prior expectations. Active learning, meanwhile, denotes a broad category of learning strategies involving active engagement with the learning environment. Though a large number of studies have demonstrated the positive effect of both of these factors on memory in isolation, very few have considered the two in interaction—here is where Matt found his gap in the literature.
Dr. Julie Markant, Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department and Matt’s first reader, runs the lab where Matt is conducting his research. His participants are primarily Tulane students, who receive credit through psychology courses for taking part. Each of them must complete a thirty-minute computer memory game, where “points” won for remembering images and their placement on a grid translate to higher monetary rewards—or so the participants are told. (In reality, all participants are paid the same, regardless of their “performance.”) To test the effect of prediction error, Matt varies the point value attached to the different images—it is expected that students will remember higher point value images more easily. To test the effect of active learning, Matt also divides participants into two groups. One group can control the length of time each image is displayed, and the other cannot—it is expected that the active learning group will be more successful.
This project is not Matt’s first experience with research. He joined Dr. Markant’s lab in his sophomore year, and “fell in love with the research process.” Since then, he has already run a project of his own, which was partly funded by the Honors Summer Research Grant. He just submitted his final paper from this project for publication.
Matt also plans to publish the final results of his thesis study, though he needs to collect more data before he can do so. He always saw his Honors Thesis as an opportunity to “kill two birds with one stone,” so to speak—to write the thesis itself and to get something new published. Matt says that his prior experience was crucial to helping him start and complete this project, and his skills have only grown over the course of this year.
The idea for the project developed through long Skype conversations between Matt and Dr. Markant while Matt was studying abroad in Copenhagen last Spring. The two were inspired by a study conducted by Dr. Markant’s brother, which looked at the effect of active learning on memory, and decided to add the prediction error component to study potential interactions.
Once he returned from Denmark, Matt got to work setting up his project. Over the summer, he was a recipient of the Tulane University Research in Neuroscience grant, which funded him to work in the lab close to full-time. He began by replicating the results of the original study, without adding his new component. He also filed for approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is required for all research involving human subjects. As the year began, he started running his full experiment, alongside conducting a more extensive literature review of related studies.
Matt recommends that aspiring thesis writers take time to explore the literature and discuss it with professors before they begin, in order to find a project they can really enjoy. A lot of research is what scientists call “trenchwork”—repetitive, tedious tasks with little intrinsic meaning. Thus, it is crucial that writers have overarching motivation to keep plugging away.
After almost three years working in research, Matt’s love for the process has not diminished. He even enjoys the “trenchwork” as well. Matt plans to continue a life of research post-graduation—first in two-year lab manager positions in neuroscience or psychology, and then in a PhD programme in psychology. He notes that his thesis is a common topic of conversation in interviews, and has proved an invaluable opportunity to work towards his longer-term goals.