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Career Profile

Alyssa Smith

PhD Candidate in Cognitive Science
Vision and Attention Lab, University of Waterloo
Alyssa Smith headshot
Alyssa Smith headshot
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I am researching how people’s attention is affected by factors in everyday life such as taking medications.

About me

I was born/grew up in: I was born and grew up in Oakville, Ontario.

I now live in: I currently live in Waterloo, Ontario.

I completed my training/education at: I completed two undergraduate degrees at McMaster University. First, a Bachelor of Arts in English and later, a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behaviour. Then I did a Master of Arts in Psychology at the University of Waterloo, where I am now pursuing my PhD.


What I do at work

My activities during the day vary. I spend time chatting with undergraduate students and junior graduate students in the lab. I give them advice on designing experiments and analyzing their experimental data. I also help them write up and edit the results of experiments, to present at conferences or publish in scientific journals. I’ve also learned how to code, and quite a bit about data management and statistics.

As an upper-year graduate student, I have quite a bit of independence to make my own decisions about my research. Most big decisions I make with the help of my research advisor. This faculty member at the university is teaching me how to do research. They give me advice and oversee all my research. We make decisions together on what research questions to follow. Then we decide how to design studies and experiments to answer those questions. We also make decisions on the types of statistical tests we run on the experimental data. This helps us find answers to our questions. We also make decisions on how to write up the experimental results. My favourite part of my job is that I get to decide what I want to work on every day. I often have many different studies going on. Getting to decide what I feel like working on is fun.

I do most of my research on a computer! Participants in the experiment complete cognitive tasks. First, they are presented with visual or auditory targets. Then they have to respond to targets by pressing certain keys. During these tasks, we will sometimes present participants with thought probes. This is where we ask them to tell us about their attention immediately before the probe was presented. Some of my other research involves participants’ completing questionnaires. These are also often online!

Fortunately, I never work alone. My studies always include at least my advisor and myself. Most of my studies include working with other students in the lab. Everyone in the lab has slightly different expertise. Since we all approach problems differently, our group has diverse perspectives. It’s fun to hear their ideas and suggestions. Best of all, we work together to create studies that ask important questions.

My career path is

I had no, and I mean zero, interest in research or doing a PhD when I was in high school. I was interested in women’s health. When I was in high school, I wanted to be a physician. I started university in the kinesiology program but I ended up graduating with a degree in English. I struggled a lot in the kinesiology program. I didn’t know how to ask for help, or that there were more effective ways to study. I thought I was “bad at science”, so I switched programs.

Then I took a year off and worked for a bank while I figured out what I wanted to do next. I took a psychology class in the evening and found it fascinating. I took a few other psychology courses. Then I decided to go back to school to do a second undergraduate degree. This time it was a science degree - in psychology.

In psychology, I learned about how attention and memory works. This helped me study more effectively. I wanted to learn more about these processes. This led me to go to graduate school so I could do research. I wanted to better understand the factors affecting people’s attention and memory. Once I was in graduate school, I stumbled across a book on birth control and the brain. This is what got me, and my research advisor, interested in examining the relationship between hormonal contraceptive use and cognition.

I am motivated by

I am motivated by neglected areas of research. For example, I have always been interested in women’s health. When I realized there was very little work examining how hormonal contraceptive use affects cognition, I was both concerned and thrilled. This is information women ought to have when making decisions about their contraceptive use. I knew I had the skills to help generate more knowledge in that area.

I enjoy so many parts of my job. I get to learn something new every day. I get to work mostly independently, but I also get to work with a team of really bright people who make everything I do better. There’s so much variety in my job – meetings, brainstorming research areas, designing experiments, writing, data analysis (math!), and reading. It’s personally rewarding because my research will be of interest to millions of women around the world.

How I affect peoples’ lives

My research affects people by better understanding human cognition. This is how individuals pay attention - how they think, know, remember, and problem solve in different situations. For example, in lectures, or when driving. I could also be when they are using different medications, like hormonal contraceptives. This information can be translated into study strategies. By better understanding side effects, people can make informed choices about the medications they use.

Outside of work I

I enjoy running, yoga, travelling, baking, and playing with our puppy Finn. I also watch reality TV - The Bachelor/Bachelorette is a particular favourite.

My advice to others

Enjoy the ride and don’t get too focused too early. Be open to the opportunities you’re presented with. Give yourself permission to change your mind. It’s great to know what you want to do. But don’t get so hung up on pursuing that idea that you don’t explore other options that intrigue you. You might stumble upon a career path that fits you even better!

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • History
  • Literature and Language arts
  • Foods & Nutrition
  • Physical Education/Health
  • Science
  • Music
  • Business & Economics
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Enjoyed doing things on my own
  • Liked helping people
  • Organized activities for my friends
  • Was motivated by success
  • Wanted to be in charge
  • Liked being given free range to explore my ideas
  • Engaged in volunteer activities
  • Liked reading
  • Felt great satisfaction in getting good grades
  • Learned best "by doing"

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