Take 10 with... Reece Roberts

Dr Reece Roberts, from the School of Psychology, gives us 10 minutes of his time to discuss the brain, how it thinks and how it is affected by aging.

Dr Reece Roberts, School of Psychology
Dr Reece Roberts, School of Psychology

1.  Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

How the brain “thinks”, and how it ages.

2.  Now explain it in everyday terms!

My research generally uses brain scanning techniques (e.g. functional MRI) to study the human brain, how it gives rise to cognition (e.g. memories), and how these processes are affected by healthy and pathological aging.

Currently, I am funded as a research fellow by Brain Research New Zealand as part of a longitudinal study (the Dementia Prevention Research Clinic) to investigate the changes in the brain associated with progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.

Ultimately, our goal is to be able to develop a neuroimaging biomarker that can predict the likelihood of a person with MCI progressing on to develop dementia in the future.

I am also involved in a project investigating how changes in neural and vascular factors across the life-span contribute to age-related cognitive differences.

3.  Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

My time is generally spent either collecting or analysing data. Data collection involves people from the community and students coming into campus and having their brain scanned and/or doing cognitive tasks on the computer. This is quite a time-consuming process (about five hours per person), and people give up a lot of time to be part of the study, for which I’m really appreciative.

4.  What do you enjoy most about your research?

Cognitive neuroscience is an interesting area of research because it requires you to think about issues in different ways, and at different levels of abstraction. So for example, you need to think about technical issues, like “How do I maximise signal in my data?” as well as abstract ideas like, “How do we incorporate results from neuroscience into psychological theory?”.

5.  Tell us something that has surprised you in the course of your research.

I’m amazed at how quickly neuroimaging is progressing as a field, in terms of both the quality of the brain images we can acquire, as well as the analytic tools being developed in the field.

6.  How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Probably the biggest challenge is that, coming from a background in psychology, I don’t have formal training in some important skills needed for the research (e.g. programming, mathematics). This has led to more than a few error messages in Matlab over the years.

7.  What questions have emerged as a result?

In the process of trying to understand the underlying code and functionality of some neuroimaging analysis methods, I have been able to make small contributions to the field by refining these methods.

8.  What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

To add to our understanding of how the brain works. We’ve come to understand quite a bit in the last few decades, but there’s still an incredible amount to learn.

9.  If you collaborate across the faculty or University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

I have collaborated with a few academic staff in the School of Psychology, and have been incredibly lucky to have been mentored by three amazing researchers in our school: Emeritus Professor Mike Corballis, Professor Donna Rose Addis, and Associate Professor Lynette Tippett.

10.  What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Be more confident in your work.