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SU psychologist wins NSF CAREER award to study memory

November 16, 2010

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-8085

For some, the warm, sweet smell of cookies baking in the oven evokes fond memories of sleigh bells, a nighttime visitor and prancing hooves on a rooftop. Smell is among countless cues that can trigger a memory, but researchers understand relatively little about how or why the process works.

crissAmy Criss, assistant professor of psychology in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, has spent the better part of her career unraveling the mysteries surrounding episodic memory, one’s ability to remember details about a specific event. She recently received a five-year, $440,000 National Science Foundation Early Career Development (CAREER) Award that will enable her to further her work. The prestigious award recognizes outstanding scientists and engineers who, early in their careers, show exceptional potential for leadership.

“Memory is the essence of a person, dictating behavior, preferences, fears and abilities,” Criss says. “However, it’s really hard to develop treatments and solutions for people whose memory fails when you don’t understand how memory works when it is not broken.”

Criss will use her CAREER grant to develop a series of laboratory experiments designed to evaluate three critical components of episodic memory—memory cues, the content of memory that is recalled independent of cues (content recall), and how content recall and cues interact.

“Some things are more memorable than others,” Criss says. “We want to figure out why by examining the properties of successful cues, the nature of the content that is recalled independently of cues and why some cues are effective for one type of content and not other content.”

In addition to her research, Criss’ CAREER award will also fund the development of new undergraduate and graduate courses. She is currently working on revising the research methods curriculum for undergraduate students and will soon begin work on a cognitive psychology course for graduate students.

Cognitive psychology is a broad field that studies how the mind works, including how people perceive, remember, think, speak and solve problems. Specifically, cognitive psychology focuses on how the brain acquires, processes and stores information. The study of episodic memory is one component of the field of cognitive psychology.

Criss holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and cognitive science with a certificate in mathematical modeling from Indiana University, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology and neuroscience from Miami University. Prior to her SU appointment in 2007, she spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Carnegie Mellon University. She is also an adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University and a faculty affiliate at SU’s Gerontology Center.

Criss is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Memory and Language and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition. She received a Student Research Achievement Award and Outstanding Dissertation Award from Indiana University’s Department of Cognitive Science, an NSF Graduate Student Fellowship (1999-2002), and was a 2001 fellow at the McDonnell Foundation Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College.

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