PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences
Sadie (Sarah) Witkowski is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology with a focus on Brain, Behavior, and Cognition who researches how sleep can improve memory. She has a passion for science communication and founded the PhDrinking podcast to interview graduate students across fields about their research.
How would you describe your research?
In the cognitive neuroscience lab where I work, we focus on how sleep improves memory through a variety of methods. My particular interest lies in the dichotomy between highly-detailed memories versus more generalized representations. For example, you might want to remember all of the details of your last birthday party, but it's better to generally remember where you can find free parking rather than the exact spot you parked last time. My work focuses on how sleep might differentiate between these two types of memory by helping one type more than the other.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
When I was in high school, I read Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and was completely enthralled. I knew then that I wanted to study the brain, but it took me a few more years to realize the variety of neuroscience and cognitive psychology research I could pursue.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
Because my research is all about getting participants to take a nap in the lab so that we can collect sleep data, my experiments can take four hours per person. It's incredibly frustrating to spend that much time on a single 'data point,' only to later learn that they didn't sleep or something went wrong with the equipment. Hence, I've learned to be thorough and always have a checklist to avoid any mistakes that might cost me my data.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
Most people think neuroscience and psychology are only useful in explaining when things go wrong in a person's head. I'm really interested in seeing my research applied in a way that helps people learn or better retain memories. I think if we can use sleep to improve memory, we can help a much broader group of people live richer lives.
When I was applying to PhD programs, my adviser at the University of Texas at Austin recommended I look up Dr. Ken Paller. As soon as I saw the work his lab was doing, I was hooked. Ken is a wonderful adviser and has been great at pushing me to follow my research interests, wherever they lead.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I'm very physically active, so you can find me either in the gym with fellow grad student Ben Reuveni, who holds me accountable to our lifting routine, or out on the soccer pitch in the spring playing with the "Psych Kicks" (intramural department soccer team).
What inspires you?
My second love after research is science communication. In 2016, I started a podcast called PhDrinking, where I interview graduate students from a variety of fields about their research. I've covered everything from gravitational waves to French literature in the Magreb to prairie grass restoration and plenty else. It's been a really fun side project to interview grad students and learn about research that's really different from my own work. Those interviews have inspired me through rough patches in my own work.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
This summer, I will be traveling to D.C. in order to participate in the American Academy for the Advancement of Science's Mass Media Fellowship. Essentially, I will receive training on how to write like a science journalist and then work at the media company Voice of America to produce online and radio stories about current scientific research. I feel incredibly lucky to be chosen for this exciting summer fellowship.