Unlocking Mysteries of Learning and Memory
Science is such an expansive field that it sometimes takes experimentation to find the right discipline. That’s what happened to Christine Belz Adams, who started out at Auburn University in pre-veterinary medicine, dabbled in chemistry and physics, but then ultimately ended up in her
dream job as a research psychologist with the Navy. Perhaps it was her indecision as a student that pointed Adams toward an interest in how people remember, learn, and make decisions.
Her most recent research at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (TSD) in Orlando, Fla., seeks to identify people who are particularly good at making intuitive decisions. She wants to know how that skill (or knack) works and whether it can be learned. The answers
are important for the military, whose members make hundreds of decisions every day — some of them involving life or death choices.
“Understanding intuitive decision-making can help make our troops safer and more effective on the battlefield — for example, during encounters with improvised explosive devices,” says Adams. “Some people get an inkling there is something wrong or out-of-the-ordinary before it is
obvious. The moment a person has that feeling is what we call intuition.” Intuitive judgment can be critical, Adams says. Based on a soldier’s intuitive judgment that an IED may be present, a patrol or convoy can be stopped and efforts made to locate it before it detonates.
Adams attributes finding her niche in science to fantastic mentors, both at Auburn — where her undergraduate adviser, Dr. Jeffrey Katz, introduced her to psychological research — and at the University of Nevada, Reno — where her graduate adviser, Dr. William Wallace, got her hooked
on memory theory, especially false memory (important in such areas as eyewitness testimony). “I ended up doing basic science in graduate school, and I loved it,” she says.
While working on her Ph.D., Adams won a SMART scholarship. The Science, Mathematics & Research for Transformation (SMART) program, sponsored by the Department of Defense, pays tuition, books, and a stipend for students in technical disciplines who are willing to “pay back”
the support they received by working at a DoD laboratory during summers and after graduation.
As it turned out, the SMART program introduced Adams to another inspirational and supportive mentor, the Navy’s Dr. Gwen Campbell at TSD. “Gwen is so fun, so great. She gave me a wonderful experience as a SMART intern and got me interested in research to support our military.”
Adams did her dissertation on false memories and graduated in 2008 with a Ph.D. in cognitive and brain sciences. She was anxious to return to TSD to complete her scholarship payback obligation, but there was no hiring authority at the time. She could have worked at any DoD lab, but she loved the people and work at TSD, so she persisted, encouraged by Campbell and others with whom she worked. “I had great supervisors who worked every angle possible to get me onboard,” said Adams. She started out as a federal contractor and soon became a full-time civilian employee.
“The overarching idea of what we do here at TSD is to explore ways to improve training effectiveness for the Navy and Marine Corps and the broader military,” says Adams. Her own research interest is in the principles and theory behind learning and memory.
“One of our projects is really technologically advanced — almost sci-fi! We use EEG — electroencephalography — to study what the brain is doing at the moment it is learning. We can actually see electrical changes in the brain when someone is learning a task.” EEG employs scalp sensors to record the electrical activity produced by neurons firing within the brain. “We are interested in whether a person’s response to a task is intentional or a slip. If we can determine whether trainees are simply guessing, we know they are not really learning and need more practice. Then we can tailor the training to that person.”
The EEG research uses an existing computer-based training program — ROC-V (recognition of combat vehicles) — that teaches military personnel wearing night-vision goggles how to identify combat vehicles by their thermal signatures. Adams and her fellow researchers are analyzing the EEG data to figure out whether it can be reliably determined, at the moment of response, if people are just guessing or if they got the right answer because they actually learned something.
The ultimate goal of the research is to train soldiers, sailors, and Marines more efficiently and effectively. “If we can quickly get trainees to the point where they are learning and not guessing, we free up more time for their mission-related tasks,” Adams points out.
“I thrived in research psychology because of the wonderful advisers who showed me there is more to psychology than clinical work. I’ve been lucky to have great mentors in college and graduate school and now here at TSD,” Adams says.
She got married in May, becoming Christine Belz Adams. When she’s not in her lab working on experiments or poring through experimental data, she likes to spend time with her new husband, Benjamin, sew for her twin nieces, and do distance running. She recently ran a 5K race at nearby Disney World, which she found almost as fun and rewarding as her “sci-fi” research.
Photo of Christine Belz Adams is courtesy of Doug Schaub