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Summer Snapshot: Shannon Burns '15 Researches a Different Way to Look at the Brain

About Summer Research

To learn more about the Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) and to read more entries in our "Summer Snapshot" series, visit our SURP website.

This is one in a series looking in on the work and projects Pomona students are carrying out this summer.

Project summary:
We are working with a pretty new brain imaging technology called near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). The technology has only been used for about the last 10 years, so a lot of people are not really familiar with it. We’re trying to replicate studies that have been done using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is a much more frequently used imaging technology but also a lot more expensive. We’re hoping that if we can localize  right temporoparietal junction—an area at the back of the head—activation in response to thinking about others, reliably like fMRI can, then we can do experiments with NIRS that are a lot cheaper and a lot quicker to run. NIRS could then potentially be used as a cheaper alternative, which could accelerate the speed of research because it’s more accessible than a massive fMRI machine.

What is your mentor like?
My faculty mentor is Professor Richard Lewis. He is the Psychology Department chair, but he’s also a neuroscience professor, and a complete character. He’s a lot of fun to work with, especially in the lab. The fact that we are using NIRS to look at a component of theory of mind was a huge draw. I’m working on this project specifically because I’m interested in social neuroscience, which I would like to pursue in graduate school. This was a really good test to see if that’s what I want to do. I’m really enjoying it.

What is one thing about your research so far that you find particularly interesting?
Something that surprised me is that there is a lot of disagreement in the field about how to best use NIRS for looking at the brain, since the application of technique is so new. Going into this project, I thought, “Okay, so NIRS hasn’t been used a lot with respect to the brain, but at least people will understand the technology. It’s near-infrared spectroscopy--it’s been used by chemists for decades.” But after looking at prior research, I began to realize that even though NIRS has been used in other applications, using it to look at the brain is a whole other matter. Using NIRS in this context is a very new approach and there are still a lot of things to figure out in terms of how to use it to get the best results.

What is the biggest problem you’re running into right now?
We’re collecting data and we’re seeing something, but we’re not exactly sure what it is. We’re getting a particular signal in the temporoparietal junction in response to the stimulus, but we’re also getting a residual response about five to 10 seconds afterward. We’re trying to figure out whether it reflects a brain response or is related to systemic physiology.