SCHOLARS & ARTISTS SPOTLIGHT
Pictured above: Distinguished Professor of Psychology Ralph Miller and Tori Pena, senior Anthropology & Psychology double major
Meet Undergraduate Researcher Tori Pena and her Mentor Distinguished Professor Ralph Miller
Professor Ralph Miller has spent the last 55 years studying learning and memory across vertebrate species. With the help of student research assistants, he and his lab are redefining what we think of as forgetting.
"It seems to be that what we call forgetting is not an irrevocable loss of information but a lapse in accessibility of the information, which, under select circumstances, could be recovered," he said.
Professor Miller is finding that the processes behind learning and retention are similar across species.
"Very simple information processing appears to be qualitatively the same across most, if not all, mammalian species," he said. "Historically our work was done mostly with rodents, but we also worked with mice and frogs and now we are working exclusively with humans."
Professor Miller, a distinguished professor in psychology and the former chairperson of Binghamton University's psychology department, never took a psychology course when he was an undergraduate. He earned a Bachelor's of Science in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before pursuing an M.S. in physics from Rutgers University. He decided to switch fields from physics to psychology because he wanted to find a science that would allow him to combine his interests in scientific theory and experimentation.
"In physics, one is either a theoretician or an experimentalist," he said. "I wanted to try to bring the two together. A young science seems to allow that; psychology was — and still is — a relatively young science."
After switching fields, Professor Miller stayed at Rutgers to pursue a Master's in social psychology. He fell into physiological psychology, the field in which he has his Doctorate, also from Rutgers, largely by accident.
"A faculty member offered to put me on his research grant if I were to help him with his research and he happened to be studying learning and memory," Professor Miller said. "If you do anything for a while and do it well and people commend you for doing it, you begin to like it. That's what we call functional autonomy, and it's a real phenomenon. So, I like what I do largely because I have been reinforced for doing it."
Just as was the case with his mentor, Professor Miller's lab utilizes the help of students. Tori Peña, a senior double majoring in psychology and biological anthropology, is one of eight undergraduate students currently working as research assistants in Dr. Miller's lab.
Peña applied to work in Professor Miller's lab during her sophomore year. Professor Miller specifically recruits second year undergraduate students because he looks for a two-year commitment from his research assistants.
"I hope that a student entering the lab will stay for two years," he said. "There's obviously no iron-clad obligation — if they're unhappy, they leave — but in truth it happens practically not at all."
Peña found out about Professor Miller's lab after he sent out a call for applications to the psychology department listserv. She interviewed and underwent training during her sophomore year and began working in the lab during her junior year. Peña said that she had very little prior knowledge about cognition before she entered Professor Miller's lab, but since starting her role as a research assistant, she has developed a real interest in the subject. In fact, she plans to continue to study cognitive psychology in graduate school next fall.
"I like [working in the lab] a lot because it helped me pick some of my experimental courses since I'm a psychology major," Peña said. "Those courses complemented the work that I was doing here, so it helped me with my learning and my classes."
Professor Miller said that he likes serving as a mentor because his students don't just work for him, but they become his friends. Peña said that he will sometimes take his research assistants out to dinner to get Chinese food, which allows the everybody to get to know each other on a more personal level.
"Ralph likes to take us to Moon Star sometimes. It's a good time. We usually get the duck," Peña said. "It's a good time to hang out with people in the lab outside of the lab. We get to know each other better that way."
Professor Miller is also not afraid to admit that he and his research assistants do not agree on everything. To put it lightly, Peña said that Professor Miller will sometimes "debate" with his postdoctoral research assistant. Professor Miller was quick to correct her: He and his assistants do not debate, they argue.
"The arguments that we have in the laboratory sometimes are quite real," he said. "I'll argue students, and after an hour I've convinced them that I have a good point and they've convinced me that they have a good point — we change viewpoints [and] the argument continues. We're arguing the other side!"
After more than five decades, Professor Miller is still passionate about learning more in his area of study. His research assistants play a part in keeping the job interesting.
"[Undergraduate researchers] are usually stimulating; they are vivacious, they are pleasant, they keep me on my toes, they point out errors in what I do and what I am thinking, they become my friends," he said. "They are more than just students by and large."