Assistant Professor of Psychology

Maxey 342

B.A. in psychology and biology, Whitman College
Ph.D. in neuroscience, University of Minnesota in Minneapolis
Postdoctoral Researcher, Integrative Biology and Physiology, UCLA 

I loved my high-school science courses and, upon entering college, I was certain I would major in biology (I did). What I didn't expect was that I would find psychology equally fascinating and want to major in it as well. After completing a double major at Whitman, my newfound interests in the brain, mind, and behavior led me to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where I earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

As an undergraduate, I became intrigued by how effortlessly babies learn language. I'd also studied how early-life and ongoing experiences shape brain circuitry (in bees). To merge these lines of inquiry, I 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. My 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, I studied the genetic influences on song learning as a postdoc at UCLA. There, I studied the bird version of FOXP2, the first gene definitively linked to human speech and language deficits in humans. I 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, I've found that proper FoxP2 function is critical throughout the lifespan of an animal to learn and maintain learned vocalizations.

My research has also taken me to the slopes of Andes Mountains in Ecuador, where I collaborate 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. We are interested in how the brain in each bird responds to cues produced by the other bird to understand how cooperative social behaviors are coordinated across individuals.

At Whitman, I am excited to continue investigating how experiences and biological factors interact to influence behavior, particularly speech and language, in both in my research lab and in my courses. In addition to teaching Introductory Psychology and Cells to Brain to Mind (Behavioral Neuroscience), I am 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.

Outside of the classroom, I enjoy returning to my childhood stomping grounds in Colorado, finding time for friends and family near and far, hopping on my bike for a ride around town, and engaging in extended conversations with my very "talkative" Siamese cats.