Month: June 2017

Facilitating Memory Through Games: How Will I Do It?

IMG_4429It’s been three full weeks that I have been exploring memory performance in preschool children. I’ve been spending all my days at the Children’s School, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not only do I get to enjoy time in the sun and fresh air (instead of being stuck at a desk all day), but I also get help shaping my research project from the children themselves. Playing some memory games with them for the past two weeks has helped me think more deeply about what I want to study, what I can actually study within the available time, and how to make the study as engaging as possible for the children. Finding a balance between all three is no easy feat, much more complex than I anticipated, but thankfully the summer is just heating up (literally).

IMG_4399In the first week of the fellowship, before the Children’s School Summer Camp began, I started my literature review by reading about short term memory (immediate memory for an event that just occurred), long term memory (memory for events and knowledge that were previously encountered), and, most importantly for my research project, working memory, or memory that stores information to be readily available for use. I predicted that working memory would be the focus of my project, but had not thought of how often working memory operates implicitly in our everyday lives.

IMG_4391Of the different ways working memory is used, the two broad topics that struck me were communicating and problem solving. It hadn’t occurred to me how much working memory helps us communicate, mainly because my working memory is not impaired. One of the books I have been reading (A Mind At A Time)  explained memory in the context of memory impairment, which highlighted why studying memory is important. As I write this blog post, my working memory is holding reading and writing knowledge so that I have it available when I need to know how to spell a word or where to add punctuation. With an impairment, it would be difficult to remember the beginning of the sentence by the time I get to the end, which might cause the sentence to not make sense, or sound choppy and disconnected. These impairment effects also impact spoken communication, where we need to remember the beginning of the sentence in order to finish it. More importantly, we need to remember the previous parts of a conversation in order to continue talking appropriately about a topic.

IMG_4424With problem solving, much of the same idea applies. We have to remember the problem we are facing to find a solution. The job of working memory is to hold the problem and its components and have them ready for reference while we search our long term memory for the best solution and related steps. If we keep forgetting the problem parts while devising a solution, the problem may never get solved! Setting goals and performing tasks also falls under problem solving. For example, we have all faced a moment where we walk into a room and forget why we came. This situation probably happens to everyone once in awhile, but imagine if we always forgot what we wanted to do while we were trying to do it. From my recent readings, I realized that working memory is crucial to getting anything done, because without it, we wouldn’t be able to hold together parts of ideas as they develop, devise parts of a plan to solve problems or complete tasks, or bridge the gap between short and long term memory.

Furthermore, with memory comes attention. We can’t remember what we don’t notice. One of the challenges I encountered is making the games interesting enough to keep the children’s attention, which will be important if I am trying to facilitate working memory strategies through memory games. However, from all the games I have played in the past two weeks, I have a better understanding of what motivates children and what to say to keep them engaged. For example, I was surprised when many children kept asking for a version of the basic memory matching game where they had to match items with opposite meanings. I thought there might be reluctance to play because the idea of opposites is more complicated than necessary for the game, and might have caused more failures in making matches. Instead, I found that the children requested games with more complex images more often. They are more attentive toward the games that have faces or complex images, preferring the challenge over the simplest version of the game with concrete objects for which the children have labels. When talking to the children, I have to be animated and speak loudly to keep their attention on the games, especially when competing with the pools and art projects at camp. So far, I found that the most effective way to keep their focus is to ask the children for help when I am taking a turn during the game. They seem more motivated to pay attention when they feel like they are helping me improve my performance, which then improves their own.

IMG_3920I am now even more convinced about the importance of studying memory and especially the importance of improving memory ability and strategies in young children, while their brains have the most ability to adapt to and use such strategies. There are a lot of details that need to be worked out, and I have about five weeks left in Pittsburgh with Dr. Carver and only two with the children at camp to do so. It takes a village to raise a child, and it might take the entire Children’s School population (with my hedgehog mascot named Seagull) to determine the focus and methods of my research project before the summer ends, but if the first three weeks were any indication, it will no doubt be something to remember.

Learn more about my project.


The Beginnings of My Project

Hello! This week was my 2nd week working on my thesis project with Dr. Vicki Helgeson. Over the last two weeks, I have devoted hours upon hours to reading various books, research articles, and people’s personal stories regarding the difficulties that come with living with a type 1 diabetes (T1D) diagnosis in order to bolster my knowledge on the subject. Similar to most people, I went into this project with most of my knowledge of T1D management coming from TV commercials showing people cheerfully pricking their fingers with a cool looking gadget. I went into this project knowing I had a lot to learn; and over the course of 2 weeks, the things I have learned completely changed my perception of the illness and brought me immense respect for those who live with it. I hope to share a bit of that learning with you here today.

Starting with the essentials, Type 1 Diabetes is a chronic illness in which the body cannot produce insulin. T1D is often diagnosed in children, however, contrary to popular belief, it can actually develop and be diagnosed later on in life. The body’s inability to produce insulin leads to increases in blood glucose levels (blood sugar), which in turn can lead to heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, or limb amputation. Pretty intense list of complications that can follow, right? Rarely in the mainstream representation of T1D are any of these complications and health outcomes mentioned, but all of them are possible with inadequate self-care.

T1D is extremely tricky to live with because illness management is predominantly the responsibility of the patient, and is a continuous responsibility across their entire lifetime. In addition, management of T1D changes on a daily basis based on the patients physiological standing in that moment. Health management predominantly refers to adherence to strict diets, constant blood glucose monitoring and insulin administration (if necessary), and exercise. But even while attending to these management forms, difficulties can arise. For example, when exercising, diabetics need to be careful that their blood sugar levels do not drop too low due to their exercising.

One thing that I found very surprising as I furthered my literature search was the lack of psychological importance in T1D management. T1D is highly associated with other psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, which can make coping difficult; despite this, there is such little emphasis upon taking care of patients mental as well as their physical wellbeing. It brought to mind the overall lack of respect and recognition of the mind-body connection in the current biomedical model of health care that America upholds. In this model, the patient’s treatment is predominantly based on physiology, when in reality, self-care extends to their mental wellbeing as well. It’s rare to find someone in good mental health without good physical health, or good physical health without good mental health. The two go very hand in hand.

In sum, dipping my toe in the literature over these two weeks has brought me immense joy and I look forward to working hard to fill in the gaps of knowledge that exist. And to continue to promote the importance of altering our health care system to value not just patient’s physiological standing, but their psychological wellbeing as well.

First Update

gent_mapSince this is my first blog post, a short introduction is probably warranted. My name is Manu Navjeevan and I’m an economics student at CMU. My honors thesis is focused on studying trends in income mobility in the U.S and specifically in Pittsburgh/Allegheny County. I chose this topic, partially because it is, I believe, extremely relevant in today’s political climate, but also because it is a less studied field of economics that I felt I could contribute to.

The last few weeks have been extremely constructive in terms of getting a more focused research question and getting a better idea of how to approach the problems I want to work on. When I came into this at the beginning of the summer, I had relatively little idea of what specific question I wanted to answer. I had chosen the topic of income mobility about halfway through the spring semester, with some input from my advisor, Prof. Laurence Ales and had initially thought I would look at specific Pittsburgh programs and see how they might affect income mobility. As I did a bit more looking into the subject over the back half of last semester, it became increasingly apparent to me, however, that I did not have the data to analyze these programs. To study the effect on a specific program on life outcome, one needs individual level data on a variety of variables and over a relatively long period of time for the people in the program. Even if the City of Pittsburgh kept this data, the odds that I would be given access to this data (privacy concerns, etc.) or that it would be robust enough to get significant results were slim. Also, I was having some trouble identifying programs unique to the City of Pittsburgh that I could analyze (though this was probably due to a lack of discipline in looking through the budget on my end). Because of this (and again, in the interest of transparency, a good deal of laziness in doing any real research or reading on my topic during the school year), I didn’t really know what I should be doing apart from reading papers when I got back to Pittsburgh.

However, through reading papers, I began to get a better idea of what problems I could reasonably expect to tackle in an honors thesis. My advisor, Prof. Laurence Ales, has also been particularly helpful in this regard, pointing me to a number of websites where I could find county and census tract level data. Also, with the help of the Dean’s and Associate Deans in Dietrich, I was able to get in touch with the office of City Councilman Dan Gilman and meet with his Chief of Staff Erika Strassburger this Tuesday to talk about city and county programs targeting income mobility. As it stands, I am currently studying income mobility via two approaches.

The first is to look at what county programs or attributes may be correlated with higher income mobility. Through the work of Prof. Raj Chetty at Stanford, we have estimates on the causal effects of living each county in the U.S on income mobility. We don’t know, however, what policies may drive the differences in income mobility between counties. By looking at data on demographic characteristics and the relative sizes of people on public assistance income or on differences in public spending in these counties we hope to study these differences. I’ve currently merged together census data with Chetty’s estimates and am in the stage of identifying what characteristics may be the best predictors and cleaning/transforming the data to perform inference on our regression estimates.

The second approach is through studying the effects of gentrification on income mobility, a problem salient to Pittsburgh. There is a considerable body of work out there that shows that growing up in a better neighborhood has positive effects on life outcomes for poorer children and there is some evidence that people in gentrifying neighborhoods may not move out at a higher rate than in non-gentrifying neighborhoods. Given this, we may want to study the extent to which (if at all) the gains for poorer children in gentrifying neighborhood caused by lower crime rates, etc. are offset by the detriments (less disposable income, more inequality, etc.). To this end, I again used census data at the census tract level to identify which of the over 50,000 census tracts in the U.S look like they’re gentrifying and to what extent. I was able to use this to generate a heat map (below) of which states in the U.S look like they are experiencing the most gentrification (weighted gentrifying neighborhoods as a % of total neighborhoods). The map shows a few interesting results. For example, there appears to be a lot of gentrification in the Dakotas as well as Montana, which runs contrary to where we might believe gentrification is happening. Some of this can probably be explained by the emergence of shale gas in those regions making oil towns in those states significantly better off (North Dakota has the nation’s lowest unemployment rate). When this is combined with the fact that those states have relatively few people, and therefore relatively few census tracts, it probably explains the high rate of gentrification we are seeing on the maps. The hope is now to study outcomes or other characteristics of gentrifying neighborhoods to get a better sense of their effects on life outcomes.

Research aside, life in Pittsburgh over the summer has been relaxing. It’s odd to be on campus without as many people but it means that finding a place to work on campus is nice and restaurants in the area are generally less crowded. Also, because there are no homeworks or midterms, there’s more time to run errands or catch up with people over the summer that, over the school year, you may not get as much time to see. The flexibility of independent research also allows me to go to events and fit my schedule around other things that I may want to do. I’m excited for the rest of the summer, both in terms of making progress on my thesis as well as being to do things in Pittsburgh that I haven’t made time to do yet.

Learn more about my project.



Starting My Novel

For my senior thesis I’m exploring the concept of narrative identity, basically the idea that we form our identities through stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the world, by writing a novel. I’m currently taking summer classes and volunteering at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen, so my allotted time this summer to work on my thesis doesn’t begin until July 1st, but that hasn’t stopped me from laying out the groundwork for my project.

I’ve decided my novel will be set at a large tech company (not exactly sure what sort yet) in Silicon Valley. Having attended Gunn High School in Palo Alto, I’m very familiar with the area and its culture, and have set a few of my short stories there in the past. The novel will center around a few intelligent slackers who manage to get by without doing much by falling through the cracks at the large company they all work at. This will of course backfire for them later on in the story, but I want to introduce my characters in a somewhat tranquil setting before I plunge them into conflict. I have a lot of ideas for where the novel will go, but some of them are mutually exclusive, so I don’t really want to put them on this blog yet. As of now, I’ve done a lot more work generating choices for where the story can go than actually deciding between these choices, so once I make more decisions, I will have more to report back on.

Outside of class, volunteering, and writing, I’ve been doing some reading and have been watching some films and television. I just finished reading The Magus by John Fowles and am about to read The Sellout by Paul Beatty and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. As far as films and television, I’ve adapted this William Faulkner quote to guide my viewing: “Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” Though I suppose I should read more terrible books, shoddy films are much less of an investment of my time and I often find I’m more inspired by a bad film than a good one. To this end, I’ve been making my way through the Fast and Furious series. Though most of the dialogue is terrible and much of the acting is flat or overdone, there is something really human about these sorts of mistakes that I just love. As far as more critically acclaimed films, I recently saw Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal and Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, and have been rewatching some of my favorite David Lynch films, as well as catching up on the reboot of Twin Peaks. No matter whether I love or hate something Lynch makes, I always feel challenged by it, and his work is a well of inspiration I can always draw something new from.

It’s been exciting going from nothing to the foundations of a novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes in the coming weeks and months.

Learn more about my project.

Pittsburgh Meets Guatemala

image1[1]It’s raining. Then again it rains everyday at this time (6 pm). I’m writing to you from Antigua, Guatemala during the rainy season! I’ve been here about three weeks and I have one more to go. I won the Jennings Brave Companion Fund, which is a scholarship to study abroad during the summer. With this, I choose to volunteer in a free clinic in Antigua, Guatemala for 4 weeks. Antigua Guatemala is such an exciting place to be. The cobble stone streets, the daily views of the active volcanoes, and the merchants selling their goods in the street never get old. I have rode in a chicken bus (a colorful loud bus packed beyond capacity) to work everyday, I hiked an active volcano, and I have had great conversations with people in my clinic.

This scholarship has given me the funds to come to the area I am researching for my honors thesis (Central America). I have learned so much about the culture and how the water system works here in Antigua. It’s been very valuable being here in person and not learning from behind a computer screen. I’ve been to Honduras and Nicaragua over the years for one-week volunteer trips building water systems, but these four weeks has deeply widened my global perspective.image2[1]

For my project I will be looking at how technical communications plays a role in sustainability in public health projects in Central America. I intend to mainly look at water systems when discussing the scope of public health projects (surprise, surprise). I’ve decided to start my journey by reaching out to nonprofits that operate in Central America and see how they work towards making there projects sustainable. It seems that everyone has a system they use that has changed over the years to make these projects last longer. Hopefully I will be able to find image3a trend between the organizations use of technical communications and the degree of sustainability.

I am very excited to be working on a project that lets me take a step beyond the United States. I’ve been interested in the field of sustainability in public health for a while, but I haven’t been able to look into it until now. Combine that with my favorite part of the world, and you have an unforgettable research project.

Learn more about my project at Carnegie Mellon University.

Starting a Documentary

Chronic pain is extremely misunderstood. No, it doesn’t just affect older individuals. No, there is not one straightforward treatment. No, its not just in the individual’s head. Yes, chronic pain can be disabling, but no, it is not recognized as a disability by the government. Chronic pain conditions are as complex and nuanced as those who deal with them, something that is often overlooked when discussing the disorders. Imagine on top of the stigma above, for particular women dealing with chronic pain of the vulva, an added bias because of gender and the location of the pain.

As I begin my thesis project, I am out to explain and examine the various stigmas surrounding vulvodynia, a severe chronic pain condition of the vulva. Why is it underreported and under diagnosed? How does it affect regular functioning? What are treatment options? Why are they so limited and archaic? Why isn’t there more research? Once laying out these specific topics and questions, I decided on a video documentary as the format of my thesis. It makes the most sense because I have been working with imagery, still and moving, for several years now, and I feel I can incorporate both information and emotion. Emotion matters for chronic pain discussions; severe pain creates drastic emotion. Information is important because it will inform my audience about what is going on systemically, and what actions they could take to impact that.

There are many factors to consider when beginning to create a documentary video: whose stories get to be included and why, how the individual narratives are woven together to create a larger systemic critique, what topics are key to emphasize, what bias I bring to the film, what footage should be sought out and more. Hopefully in the coming weeks as I begin interviewing both individuals with vulvodynia and healthcare providers, I will start to uncover some answers and have greater clarity on the direction of the documentary.

Keeping Track of Discussions with My Thesis Adviser

Now two full weeks have passed since my research for the Dietrich Honors Fellowship started. Doing independent research over the summer struck me as an inspiring and stimulating responsibility, as it may be one of only a few opportunities that I have to conduct research about my own interests, and not for a class project. If I were doing this all alone, I would find it daunting and frustrating determining how to begin and where to head. Fortunately, under the direct and regular supervision of my thesis adviser, Professor Martin Gaynor, I am able to unfold the project in a timely manner and build my own perspectives on issues that interest me.

We meet weekly—and often biweekly—depending on workloads that are given to me at our previous meeting. I am absolutely loving our meetings. I get to ask Professor Gaynor about materials that are not often taught in class and get to hear the his personal opinions on many policies . For example, he assured me that there are always costs and benefits to policies as exemplified by the Affordable Care Act. I believe that I can better learn something through deliberate discussions and constructive feedback, instead of by dry textbooks and lectures, as discussions and feedback can be only given and understood only if I have full understating of the subject. These conversations gently push me to fully grasp the concepts and construct my own viewpoints.

When it comes to discussion, however, the professor’s profound and abundant knowledge can be so overwhelming that I may have a hard time following him. I find it crucial to keep written documents of what we talk about, not only to keep track of what our meeting was about, but also for my future reference. Documentation allows me to allocate my time and work efficiently and to see the big picture of where he is leading me. Without keeping written documents, I may have a hard time organizing my time and our invaluable discussions would be forgotten.

Where to Begin?

Coming into this research project, I knew it would be a daunting task since the project would entail many different layers. I would first need to define some key terms, like what exactly an imperial presidency is. I also knew that throughout this process that my own partisan views could not limit the sources I use. Obtaining a well-rounded understanding of how Mr. Trump’s presidency would deal with the courts would be essential in gaining the trust of my audience and for them to seriously consider my research.

To begin, I thought it would be helpful to read some pieces from publications like the New York Times, the National Review, and the Atlantic, before I really dug deep into more scholarly works and take on a narrower approach to my project. Not only was this a great way to explore how other authors have approached the subject, but they have been great sources of information regarding other imperial presidencies and how much power such executives can wield. Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times piece, while very George W. Bush-centric, gave me an idea of where to start my research. A good starting point seems to be the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose expansive four terms in office led to the creation of the 22nd Amendment.

The other articles gave me a sense of the importance the incumbent has on the incoming president’s administration. As Conor Friedersdorf explains in his piece in the Atlantic, much of the power that many feared would fall into the hands of then-candidate Trump began with George W. Bush and were continued under Obama. The issue of the surveillance state and the treatment of prisoners of war were significant issues of discussion in the articles I have accessed so far, especially in the courts, which leads me to believe that this will be an important topic area to explore. Now that I have a clear picture of where to begin, I hope the rest of this process will go smoothly.

It’s a Good Summer To Be in Pittsburgh

Me (not in Pittsburgh), overlooking the Mediterranean in Haifa, Israel (Summer 2016)

I love Carnegie Mellon and I will be the first to add that I love Pittsburgh as well. Coming from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh has always felt like an improvement on home, being more walkable, having better restaurants (although nothing can compare to my mom’s cooking) and at the risk of stating the obvious, far better sports teams!

But as much as I love Pittsburgh, I have always been the first to flee it when a semester ends. After my last final exam freshman year, my parents and I were back on 376 East before the contents of my dorm room had settled within our minivan. And my sophomore spring, I left Pittsburgh before the month of May thanks to a number of classes that required I either turn in a final essay or portfolio.

It’s not that I have ever been running away from anything in Pittsburgh, but on the contrary, there just always seems to be opportunities created while on campus that quickly fling me out of the city. My freshman year that was the chance to study abroad for the first time, traveling to Frankfurt, Germany for a two-week program at the WHU Otto Beishmen School of Management and then back home for a summer internship with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership.

Last year the journey was even more unlikely. But with the support of the Buncher Entrepreneurship Award, I soon found myself 6,000 miles away from Pittsburgh, spending the summer in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem while interning with an Israeli startup.

And so it is with excitement but some trepidation that I linger on campus to start researching my senior honors thesis. This summer, I am in a familiar location and yet still completely immersed in the unknown, and no I’m not talking about how the Exchange closes at 2:00 p.m. or the U.C. Black Chairs are somehow now nearly always empty during the summer (although both are jarring and bittersweet).

The nature of my research can partially explain these feelings. Under the advisement of Professor Jim Daniels (and with additional help from the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship) I’ll be launching into a creative Inquiry into the Future of Work.

Currently it’s a pretty broad topic filled with a lot of ambiguity and ambition. Since the initial proposal in late March, there have been changes to the way in which I plan on conducting my research and structuring my findings, as I iterate through various ideas. Reconciling my proposal to fit the requirements of both the Dietrich Honors Fellowship and the Innovation Scholars summer stipend was an exercise in itself.

Maybe it’ll help clarify things if I define what I mean by a “creative” inquiry into the future of work. Due to my lack of credibility as a “futurist” (partially explained by my poor performance in March Madness Brackets) and the short shelf life of predictions about the future that are either too far forward that no one currently alive will ever be able to prove or disprove them or not far away enough to be interesting, I intend on creating an interactive documentary that covers my own journey and the stories of my peers to explore topics within entrepreneurship and creative destruction more generally.

It may seem far-flung, but hey, I do have experience making documentaries (and in Cuba of all places!) and I have learned a lot from my experiences within the Swartz Center.

So as I start my summer, grateful to have the support of the Dietrich Honors Fellowship and the Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship and unsure of where exactly my research will lead, I’m excited. It sure does seem like a great summer to be in Pittsburgh.

Temporal-nasal asymmetry: See it out of the corner of your eye

I have now been working on my thesis for two weeks. During that short amount of time, my project has already changed drastically. While I was warned by previous fellows that I need to be flexible because aspects of my thesis will change, I had not expected it to happen so early on. Then again, perhaps I am lucky that it did.

With my thesis, I am attempting to determine whether the superior colliculus plays a role in the subcortical visual processing of numerical stimuli. While subcortical visual processing has been well documented over the last few years through the presence of monocular advantage (i.e., an effect where people are faster at making same-different comparisons between sequentially presented stimuli when the stimuli are presented to one eye as opposed to both), the actual mechanism by which it works with respect to numerical stimuli is still not clear.

Although I only recently began the research for my thesis, I have already had to re-evaluate my methodology. Initially, I decided to target the superior colliculus using purple stimuli. Because of the short wavelength of purple light, purple images activate S-cones (short wavelength cones). Up until recently, S-cones were thought to not activate the superior colliculus. Thus, a failure to induce monocular advantage using purple stimuli would be indicative of the superior colliculus’ involvement in subcortical visual processing. As a technique used for decades to target the superior colliculus, this seemed like the best way to test its involvement. However, Hall & Colby (2014) found by recording the activation of individual neurons in the superior colliculus that the superior colliculus can be activated by S-cone-specific visual stimuli. This realization forced me to rethink my approach to the experiment.

A less commonly used technique to target the superior colliculus is temporal-nasal asymmetry. This technique takes advantage of the fact that the superior colliculus is part of the tectopulvinar pathway (a visual pathway that relies more on subcortical structures than the more cortically reliant geniculostriate visual pathway). In temporal-nasal asymmetry, stimuli are presented in either the temporal or nasal hemifields. Because of the asymmetry of the tectopulvinar pathway, temporal stimuli activate the superior colliculus more than nasal stimuli, in what is called a temporal hemifield advantage. Consequently, if stimuli that have previously uncovered monocular advantage result in a temporal hemifield advantage when presented in the temporal and nasal hemifields, this would suggest that the monocular advantage previously found may have been due to the superior colliculus.

My thesis has only just begun but my methods have already been altered. While such drastic changes so early on in the process are somewhat daunting, I look forward to pursuing this new direction. In the long run, I expect that it will be beneficial that I caught this problem now; it is easier to rectify a problem when it has only just begun to manifest rather than after everything has been completed.