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Belen Guerra-Carrillo

College: Baruch College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2012

Brain Changer

What physically happens in the brain when people learn and how do those changes affect academic performance?

Those are among the questions that Belén Carolina Guerra-Carrillo (Baruch, BA in psychology, 2010) intends to explore in a doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley that she will start in the fall.

She's undertaking this research with the support of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the most prestigious award that a graduate student in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can receive. Providing $126,000 over three years, the grants recognize and support exceptional students who have proposed graduate-level research projects in their fields.

In her experiments, Guerra-Carrillo intends to train reasoning skills and working memory in children and adults by asking them to play games that require them to hold items in mind or to make relationships between objects.

Initially, her research will look for behavioral improvements in these tasks. Later, she intends to use neuroimaging to see the physical effects of this training. That may involve two related brain scans: MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), which produce three-dimensional views of the brain, and functional MRIs (fMRIs), which make a succession of live images that show changes in blood flow and oxygen consumption, indicating the activity of different regions of the brain, as the subjects engage in problem-solving.

She became interested in this field while working with Baruch psychology Associate Professor Jennifer Mangels, the principal investigator of the Dynamic Learning Lab, whose research focuses on the complex interactions of attention, learning and memory; Mangels approaches this topic from multiple perspectives that integrate social, cognitive and affective neuroscience. (Another 2012 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship winner, Jimena Santillan, also worked with Mangels.)

Guerra-Carrillo is generally interested in the way people learn and how work in neuroscience can be directly applied to education. This flowed out of her work tutoring fellow undergraduates and children in the psychiatric unit of Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens.

"Working with the children at the unit made me realize how much they could benefit from approachable training programs to strengthen basic cognitive and academic skills," she says. Her conceptual fascination grew as she attended talks at conferences about other types of cognitive training programs.

After graduation, she took two years off from school to manage Mangels' lab. "I was able to research full time and to help in many projects, seeing them through from beginning to end," she says. "Doctor Mangels is a great mentor."

She was paid through Mangels' grants from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Department of Education's research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences.

Guerra-Carrillo, 24, grew up in Quito, Ecuador, and moved to New York City when she was 17 to be with her brother. She went straight to Baruch. "I was fascinated with the city, having access to cultural events and museums - especially great food! One of the first things I noticed about Baruch was how diverse it was," she says. "In Ecuador, everyone comes from the same place. Here people are from different cultures, and that was very fascinating. I also found Baruch's professors really caring; if you showed interest in your classes, they were willing to talk with you after hours and to keep working with you as much as you wanted. That was really special."