When Elena Festa was a pre-med sophomore at Holy Cross in Worcester, she walked into the classroom of Patricia Kramer, psychology professor and vision researcher. She walked out inspired and changed.
“I was fascinated with what she was doing,” Festa said. “I asked to do a research project with her and that’s what changed my direction.”
Festa made academic psychology her career, and today she is a lecturer at Brown, inspiring and mentoring future psychologists, much as Kramer did for her.
Festa earned her new title in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences this summer, but she is not at all new to Brown. After Kramer captivated Festa with the study of perception, she pointed her to Brown, and its renowned community of vision researchers, for graduate study in 1992.
Festa earned her Ph.D. at Brown in 1998 with a dissertation concerning how the brain processes the visual perception of motion. Since then she has stayed on in a variety of roles to do research, to teach, and to advise students.
Not long after Festa graduated, her research evolved from basic science into something that also included more clinically relevant applications: understanding perception in the context of aging and Alzheimer’s disease.
Working with William Heindel, the department chair, she has been investigating whether particular aberrations in perception could be early diagnostic markers for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The underlying hypothesis is that some perceptual processes require integration across separate areas of the brain, and that disruptions in the connections between these areas are among the first changes to occur at the onset of the disease. Certain detectable breakdowns in perception, therefore, might indicate that the attack has begun long before memory or other cognitive processes have begun failing noticeably.
Meanwhile, with neurologist Dr. Brian Ott, Festa is studying the safety and performance of elderly drivers with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive impairments. Among the things they have found by putting cameras in the cars of elderly volunteers is that as driving becomes more difficult, older drivers will often regulate themselves by increasingly sticking to more familiar roads. It may therefore not always be necessary to take away the keys as soon as someone is diagnosed.
While Festa’s research has changed over the last 20 years, what has remained constant is her excitement about working in the lab with students — particularly undergraduates. She has advised or co-advised a score of undergraduate honors projects and independent studies on cognition and aging.
“I’ve had some wonderful students,” Festa said. “In all of these projects we’ve had undergraduate students involved. They provide a lot in terms of not just performing the research but also contributing insights into what might be going on.”
Research goes hand in hand with teaching, she said. Students who want to join projects often sign on after taking her classes — “Brain Damage and the Mind,” for instance — which she taught for five years between 2007 and 2012.
Festa has taught five different undergraduate classes at Brown. One of her favorites is “Introduction to Psychology.” That’s where she finds that sometimes, like Kramer, she’s made a convert.
“I’ve had several students come up to me afterward to say, ‘I wasn’t planning on being a psych major or cog neuro major but I found what you were talking about really interesting and I think that’s what I’m going to do,’” she said.
Since 2008 she’s also been a sophomore adviser. In that role, she’s helped many students plan their undergraduate careers, but sometimes the discussions concern bigger life issues. Female students often ask her about achieving a future balance between their career and family. Festa, whose 16-year-old-daughter was born while she was a doctoral student, shares her wisdom about the successes and sometimes sacrifices that life as a scientist-mother may entail.
“I feel like I’m providing that mentorship that is desperately needed for some students who are really struggling with what they want to do next,” she said. “That has been incredibly fulfilling.”
There can be many paths, she tells students. But for most aspiring scientists, as it was for her, it all starts with inspiration in the classroom and then the lab. As a lecturer, Festa enjoys being in position to help spark that inspiration.