Alumni Spotlight on… Irene Kan

Q: Can you tell us about your current position?

A: I’m currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Villanova University, and I am also the Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory Lab.

Q: What are your current research projects and interests?

A: Research in my lab focuses on the examination of the cognitive architecture and neural bases of human memory and executive functions.  We’re particularly interested in the interplay between different long-term memory systems, namely semantic memory (i.e., our memory for general world knowledge, such as knowing that apples grow on trees) and episodic memory (i.e., our memory for personally experienced events, such as remembering that I went apple picking last September).  We take a multi-disciplinary approach in our investigation: by combining behavioral, neuropsychological, and electrophysiological methods, we hope to gain a better understanding of how such memories are created, stored, and retrieved.

Q: Why did you pursue a career in academia?

A: Academia offers the perfect combination of research and teaching for me.  I have always loved basic science research.  Even as an undergraduate, I found myself really enjoying thinking about research and asking the “what if” questions.  My first opportunity to mentor students came when I was a graduate student.  Ever since then, I have really appreciated working with enthusiastic and smart students who often offer a fresh perspective, a new way to think about the research.

Q: What tips do you have for students conducting research or working on IS?

A: Try to find a topic that excites you and your advisor and take ownership of your project.  Keep in mind that a year is a very short time in the context of research projects, so try not to do too much in one study.  Take a step back and think about how your study will help advance the field.  Research almost always takes longer than you expect but staying organized will definitely help.

Q: What should psychology students do to prepare for graduate study?

A: In addition to a strong academic record, having independent research experience is key.  This is true for all PhD programs, even for clinically-oriented programs.  Be sure to highlight your independent research experience (such as your I.S. project) in your application material.  It is becoming more and more common for college graduates to work full-time as research assistants prior to applying to PhD programs.  Terminal Master’s programs also present great opportunities to gain additional research experience and to help further refine your interests.

As you consider PhD programs, remember that it is a big commitment.  Try to gather as much information as you can — talk to your professors and current graduate students in the programs that interest you.  If you are interested in clinically-oriented programs, also try to get exposure to different clinical settings.  The hands-on experience will help showcase your commitment to the field and also help you decide whether this is something you can see yourself in this career.

Q: How did Wooster help prepare you for your current career?

A: My I.S. project was my first foray into the world of memory research.  Dr. Gillund was my advisor, and my work with him really piqued my interest in memory research.  I knew my passion lies in memory research when I find myself thinking about data I’ve collected and papers I’ve read all the time and when real-life situations and problems often prompt me to think about how those situations could be understood in terms of Cognitive theories I’ve learned.  I have Wooster to thank for sparking and nurturing that interest!

Thank you, Dr. Kan!