Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences (PBS) assistant professor Dr. Ehren Newman studies circuitry in the brain, particularly the circuitry that is associated with the making of stories and the retrieval of memories. Newman’s background as a computational neuroscientist enables him to bring a plethora of new insight into his current field of systems cognitive psychology.
Memory is a complex process with multiple facets. “We don’t remember everything that happens to us with equal probability,” he observes. “Instead, we have fragmented memories of things of varying lengths.” So, how do we choose which memories to store and later recall? Newman uses a combination of computational modeling and experimental work in rats to provide a holistic view of this problem. The Newman lab explores “how various pieces of neural tissue work together at the right time and in the right order to actually give you a memory.” This research, he believes, will ultimately lead to a better understanding of human mental health conditions associated with memory distortion, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia. Learning about the circuit-based mechanisms of memory will conceivably help in the diagnoses, treatment, and in potentially developing a cure for these diseases.
Newman’s love for his work started when he was 11 years old. He was enthralled by “The Matrix,” a film that portrays a world in which brain systems are both understood and can be manipulated. “I thought that if we knew how the brain works, we could interact with it in such a way as to be able to fix or cure its dysfunctions.” This was the start of a journey that Newman then passionately continued, reading as many books as he could on the topic before going on to study neuroscience in college and graduate school. Having now established his own lab in PBS devoted to the study of memory, he currently aspires to provide empirical support for the cognitive models that represent memory through his research.
As a professor of introductory neuroscience, Newman hopes to generate excitement about the field and build bridges for students who consider the class intimidating. As a mentor to a number of undergraduate and graduate students who work in his lab, he believes it is empowering to be part of research and a scientific approach to solving problems. “Knowledge is not something written in a book,” he explains. “It is something we can seek out and discover for ourselves. If you already think that neuroscience is cool, then it is even cooler to be part of its history.”
In addition to research, the Newman lab is deeply engaged in outreach efforts across the state. Newman himself is the founder of Hoosier STARS, a program which aims to connect with high school students in rural parts of Indiana, where enrollment in higher education is low. It seeks to make science approachable and to encourage these students to pursue it at the university level.
Now in its third year, the program is run by a team of undergraduate student volunteers. They are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the organization, developing the curriculum, and choosing which high schools to attend. Some of these students go back to their own alma mater to teach in the same classrooms they sat in. “They are going in front of a person who was their teacher and coming back as a peer,” says Dr. Newman. Such experiences are powerful and good builders of confidence in undergraduates. They are also an innovative tool for teaching high schoolers, showing that a person who was once a peer is now at a university studying and building a career. Newman has since met several incoming freshmen at IU who had been exposed to the Hoosier STARS program while in high school.
Moving forward, Newman hopes to keep generating excitement about his field among high schoolers, undergraduates, and graduate students through his outreach activities and research. While he wishes to further his “own unique brand in the field of neuroscience” by bringing the cognitive and physiological neurosciences closer together, he also hopes that his students will take his principles of human memory class and be the ones who will either refute the cognitive models of memory they are currently testing or conclusively determine that they are valid.
Edited by Jennifer Sieben and Ben Greulich