Assistant Professor of Psychology Nancy Day loved her high school science courses and, upon entering college, she was certain she would major in biology (and she did). What Day didn't expect was that she would find psychology equally fascinating and want to major in it as well. After completing a double major at Whitman, Day's newfound interests in the brain, mind and behavior led her to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience.
As an undergraduate, Day became intrigued by how effortlessly babies learn language. She also studied how early-life and ongoing experiences shape brain circuitry (in bees). To merge these lines of inquiry, she joined a lab in graduate school to study how brain circuitry changes over time in young male zebra finches as they learn to imitate an adult song. Although zebra finch songbirds don't learn language, their ability to learn song relies on several factors (e.g., critical periods, brain circuitry, social interactions, auditory feedback) that are also necessary for humans to learn speech and language. Day's dissertation was an investigation of how groups of neurons in a song-dedicated brain area change their firing patterns over the course of song learning.
Following graduate school, Day studied the genetic influences on song learning as a postdoc at UCLA. There, she studied the bird version of FOXP2, the first gene definitively linked to human speech and language deficits in humans. Day manipulated FoxP2 in the songbird brain to determine whether it affects ongoing song learning in adults as it does during song learning in juveniles. Using such behavioral training paradigms as negative reinforcement, she has found that proper FoxP2 function is critical throughout the lifespan of an animal to learn and maintain learned vocalizations.
Outside of the classroom, Day enjoys returning to her childhood stomping grounds in Colorado, finding time for friends and family near and far, hopping on her bike for a ride around town and engaging in extended conversations with her very "talkative" Siamese cats.
University of Minnesota
B.A. Psychology & Biology
Professor Day's research has taken her many places, including to the slopes of the Andes Mountains in Ecuador, where she collaborated with other neuroscientists to study the plain-tailed wren. In these birds, both males and females rapidly alternate singing to produce a song that sounds as if only one bird is singing. The research team is interested in how the brain in each bird responds to cues produced by the other bird. This will help the research team better understand how cooperative social behaviors are coordinated across individuals.
At Whitman, Day is excited to continue investigating how experiences and biological factors interact to influence behavior, particularly speech and language, in both her research lab and her courses. In addition to teaching Introductory Psychology and Cells to Brain to Mind (Behavioral Neuroscience), Day is excited to lead an upper-level seminar (Brain and Language) to tackle big questions about language—a behavior that only humans possess—from an interdisciplinary perspective.