Marlene Behrmann-Undergraduate Research Office - Carnegie Mellon University

Faculty: Marlene Behrmannmarlene behrmann

  • B. A. (Speech and Hearing Pathology) cum laude, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  • M. A. (Speech Pathology) cum laude, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

Graduate institution & focus:

Ph.D University of Toronto, Department of Psychology
Focus: Experimental neuropsychology

Name of dissertation & year of defense:

Title: Attention and word recognition in neglect dyslexia: Evidence from brain-damaged and normal subjects and from a computational model.

Year: 1991

Current Positions:

  • Professor, Department of Psychology and Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition
  • Adjunct Professor, Department of Neuroscience, University of Pittsburgh
  • Adjunct Professor, Department of Communication Science and Disorders, University of Pittsburgh

Classes currently taught:

  • Biological Foundations of Behavior
  • Cognitive Neuropsychology
  • Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience

Did you participate in research as an undergraduate student?  If so, how did that experience help you in guiding students?  Yes, I completed a fourth year dissertation under supervision of Dr Claire Penn and this resulted in a first-authored journal publication (which was very exciting for me!)  [Behrmann, M. and Penn, C. (1984).  Non-verbal communication in aphasia.  British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 19, 155-176.]

Why do you work with undergraduate researchers?  Does it impact your own career directly?  I tend to work with a small number of undergraduates who, ideally, spend several years in the lab. In the beginning, they are usually assigned as an extra pair of hands to an existing project and then, as they progress, usually come up with an idea of their own or we carve out a small independent project for which they have full ownership. Although it does benefit my own work to some degree (although frankly speaking, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows obviously make a greater contribution), I am very interested in fostering the career of junior students and have found this mentoring aspect of my work at CMU to be enormously rewarding. I have had the opportunity to work with some incredible, bright and dedicated undergraduate students.

How do you approach and structure your mentoring of undergraduate researchers?  Why is it valuable for you?    I try to start working with sophomores as they both have some background and also will have longevity in the lab. These students almost always have taken a survey class that I have taught in the last few years (the Biological Foundation of Behavior) and so come to the lab knowledgeable. They have also almost always established a relationship with me and I know their strengths from their class grades, participation and attitude. If the research is to be done during the semester, I ask the students to sign up for course credit and then impose a series of requirements on them so that I can grade their performance appropriately (includes doing literature review, writing critiques of existing papers and completing a final assignment in the form of a journal article). If the research is to be done when classes are not in session, the students either obtain a stipend (SURF or Howard Hughes Undergraduate Award) or are paid for their work. They are assigned to a particular project, usually under direct guidance of a postdoctoral fellow in my lab - we meet, map out the project, its rational and background, the required readings, the expected work and the evaluation procedure. Students learn the necessary skills to acquire data (sometimes even to program the experiments from scratch), to analyse the data and then to write up the research so they have the experience of the entire research procedure from start to finish. Students are also welcome to attend my weekly lab meeting and are then exposed to a range of ideas and projects being conducted in my lab.

Did you benefit from a faculty mentor in your undergraduate or graduate years?  I have had occasion to work with amazing mentors. In particular, I try to emulate my graduate adviser, Dr Morris Moscovitch, from the University of Toronto. For one thing, he allowed me the latitude to follow my passion which diverged somewhat from his own interests. Nevertheless, he supported my ideas, critiqued the work well, facilitated my progress and provided as much advice and guidance as I needed. But even more than that, he cared about me (and not just the product of my research), making sure that I gained in confidence and that, when I was disheartened by the lack of progress or negative findings, I came to learn that dead-ends and null results are just part of the game and that one must learn from those experiences and make smart decisions about how to proceed. I have continued to have a good relationship with Dr Moscovitch and I often ask myself how he would react in various circumstances and then try to follow that.

What do you learn from working with undergraduate researchers?  I have worked with a range of undergraduate students, some of whom are heading for medical school and others whom are destined for graduate school or even industry.

I am generally amazed at the commitment these students bring to the research and this happens notwithstanding the fact that they are overloaded on course work and are engaged in service projects or other volunteer actitvities on campus. I guess they must not sleep much but they seem quite wide awake when I see them! It is true that this probably does not apply to all undergraduate students but, in the main, those that seek a research apprenticeship are usually serious about this endeavor.

When you face an obstacle in your work, what do you usually do? What advice do you have for students who may face a glitch or hardship in a project?  The first piece of advice is that everyone faces a glitch and so what is more crucial is how to deal with the glitch. The initial step is to retrace one's footsteps and make sure that there was no error in the way the experiment was conducted - a critical analysis of every step will help pinpoint any breakdowns in procedure. Remedying the problem immediately is important to keep the momentum going. If no problem is identified, a key question is whether to try the experiment again from a different angle or to abandon that path and discover a more fruitful one. This may be one of the key steps to being successful is learning when to change track - not sure I have mastered this and so research methodology, procedure and management are skills that are always updated and learned. Maybe this is what makes the process so exciting - not only is it great to get a good result but the process itself is dynamic.

If you could summarize your own research experience in one word, what would it be?  Challengingexhilirating  (well ... this is two words but I made it into one word to fulfil the requirement - I wanted to capture both the difficulty and the reward associated with research!).