For new professors at Goucher, an adjustment period is not unusual — Goucher has its own unique and eclectic atmosphere that differentiates it from other colleges and universities. Yet Dr. Gillian Starkey, who came on as Assistant Professor of Human Neuroscience for the Center for Psychology fall of 2016, seems to have fit right into the campus culture. She is already highly regarded as a kind, patient, and inspiring mentor. At the request of several curious students, I sat down with her for an interview to learn more about her journey coming here and the work she engages in now.
Having graduated from Bryn Mawr with a Bachelor’s in Psychology with a concentration in Neural and Behavioral Sciences (’08), Dr. Starkey has experienced liberal arts education firsthand. Yet, to her, Goucher students have different priorities than students from many other, similar colleges. “I’ve only been here for three semesters and this stood out to me right away: Goucher students are much more interested in making a difference,” she told me. This was the kind of community she sought to be a part of when applying for her position. Students seemed less competitive, less centered on grades, and to have, in her words, “much more of a social justice orientation.” Moreover, faculty strove to foster students’ curiosity by seeking innovative approaches to learning. “When I was here for my interview, I asked a lot of faculty about the kind of classes that they taught. Some fell into traditional canon of psychology classes, but they had different names, and they used different, more creative methods of teaching,” she said.
Dr. Starkey’s interest in education predated her studies in neuroscience. It wasn’t until becoming an undergraduate student, however, that she began to consider teaching herself. One of her biology professors, a neuroscientist and philosopher, was a big influence. “He had us debating about the nature of consciousness on the first day of class,” she remarked. Her facial expression and body gestures recalled the astonishment she had felt at his impactful lessons. “I was just hooked.” After receiving her PhD in Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience from Vanderbilt, she decided to go into teaching.
This semester, she is teaching both an Educational Neuroscience seminar and an Introduction to Psychology course. The Center tried to keep the Introduction to Psychology class small, capping it at around 22-24 students instead of 80-100 (as was the case in previous years), so Dr. Starkey has had more of an opportunity to integrate activities and experiments in her classes. She uses them as a tool for emphasizing student experience, connecting complex topics with real world issues. “Science can zoom in so closely to the level of a neuron and students can feel removed from that,” she explained to me. “For my classes, I really…I try to give things a context.”
Like the undergraduate professor who inspired her, Dr. Starkey tries to relay her passion for neuroscience to her students. “There are so many mysterious things about the brain. It’s just always exciting. I feel like every week I just learn something new that just blows my mind,” she said. For her, it’s not just an exciting field, either. It is also a practical one. Neuroscience relates to many social justice issues, including educational inequity. “I always had an awareness about issues of privilege related to access to education,” she said. Both of her parents worked in Head Start schools where they developed math curricula. “Hearing them talk about that at home I think is what clued me in that my educational experience was a little bit different [than that of the kids they taught].” As a result, she often refers back to a key question in her coursework: how can educational neuroscience help explain the disadvantages and threats that children face as their brains develop, and how they should be addressed?
This is a question that she has also sought to answer through research, focusing primarily on the neural basis for children’s math development. Educational neuroscience often involves examining brain imagery through EEG — caps with electrodes worn by participants. Dr. Starkey has been conducting EEG research for 10 years, beginning with undergraduate school and continuing throughout her postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. Luckily, Goucher provides her a nice EEG setup which has allowed her to build on that research. She has thus had the opportunity to work with both undergraduates and elementary school children, who are tasked to play number-related computer games while their brain activity is recorded.
What she and her research partners have found is that pedagogical practices in education aren’t really capitalizing on brain development. “Many kids are starting school at 8 am or starting second languages in middle school that aren’t in line with findings in neuroscience,” she told me. In examining the development of math skills in elementary school children, “We found that basic number skills, just like the most fundamental things… a lot of kids cannot do. That goes on to severely impact them as they go onto higher level math.” She gave me an example with addition. Kids who continue to depend on their fingers to add numbers together throughout elementary school tend to struggle with more complex math problems down the road. “You’re building on fluency,” she explained. In light of these findings, her goal is to develop some training programs in math for kids who are coming from backgrounds in which their exposure to math was limited due to school resources or learning differences.
When she is not researching or teaching, Dr. Starkey enjoys spending time in the outdoors, whether it be by jogging, hiking, or even skiing. As a cook and food enthusiast, she takes advantage of the underrated food scene in Baltimore. She also “love love love[s] to read,” setting the goal for herself on any break from school to “read a book that has nothing to do with neuroscience.” After all, as she imparted to me, “neural connections that you don’t continue to use you will lose over time. But older brains can still pick up information.” It’s never too late to learn something new!