Science Narratives is a series of interviews with students from diverse fields in science at various stages of their career. By learning about individuals and their journey in science, this series has the goal of breaking the stereotypes in science and showcasing the diversity in STEM. We hope readers will find connections and inspirations in these stories told.

Marianna Lamnina is a 2nd year graduate student pursuing a Ph.D in Cognitive Studies in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. You can follow her on Instagram and ResearchGate.

Describe your research in a haiku.
I enjoy learning.
I learn all about learning.

What is the focus of your research?
My research focuses on how instructional technology facilitates transfer and mastery in the STEM fields, as well as what motivates students to pursue college majors and career goals in STEM.

Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time? What are your hobbies?
I travel, hike, read books, experiment in the kitchen, drink tea, and play with puppies. Here’s evidence:

hikingMt. Esja, Iceland

Playing with the puppy.


Who is a female scientist you look up to and why?
Outside of my field: Mayim Bialik. She unapologetically shares her opinions on issues that are important to her, even when they’re not the most popular. Even though she’s in the public eye, she doesn’t conform to what society tells her she should be and she’s completely unafraid to be herself.

In my field: Angela Duckworth & Carol Dweck. Both of these researchers made tremendous leaps in research on motivation because they were unafraid to try something new. They took risks and were innovative, and because of that, they are two of the most influential researchers in my field. On top of that, they manage to stay humble and keep working.

Tell us your personal story in science + research. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
If you read my personal statement for graduate school, it would seem like my path into research was clean and direct. But the truth is, I didn’t even know what research was until college. I remember on college tours, whenever the student tour guide would mention research, I would immediately get bored and zone out. That’s because I thought research meant googling things, since that’s what research meant in high school. Remember all those “research” papers? (Side note: In 6th grade, I asked my science teacher what scientists do and she rolled her eyes and said “science.”)

But certain things were always true: I was fascinated with learning and constantly thinking about my own thinking. I asked a lot of questions and thought of creative ways to answer them. I enjoyed solving challenging problems. I loved working with students.

My first “teaching position” was in Kindergarten, when I tried teaching my grandparents English. Then in 4th grade, I tutored a 2nd grader in math. I was hooked. Throughout high school I worked as a tutor at various learning centers and in college I taught test prep. I loved teaching and wanted to become a teacher, but was exceedingly frustrated with (1) policies that keep teachers from actually teaching, (2) ineffective instruction that was in place simply because that’s how things have always been done, and (3) my struggle with motivating unmotivated students. (Being a motivated student myself, I simply couldn’t relate.)

I only started working in a lab because my academic advisor encouraged me to do so. His astute observations about my interests in psychology, coupled with my honors college requirement of a senior thesis, led to one of most important pieces of advice I’ve ever received. Thank you, Dr. Wheeler and Macaulay Honors College! I am eternally grateful.

I started out running participants for a study examining the effectiveness of different mastery criteria during concept formation. This study answered a question I’ve been grappling with since working at a learning center that emphasized mastery of material over merely passing a test. To accomplish “mastery” students repeated the same material until they were able to earn a score of 90%. Although nearly every student I encountered in my three years at the learning center ended the program at much higher levels than those at which they started, there were glaring flaws in the methodology. For example, students often had to redo the same work multiple times and would take months before moving on to something new. This often caused frustration for both students and parents who had hoped for quicker progress. This made me wonder about what “mastery” really means, how we can measure it, and what are some ways to ensure it. Running participants for the study examining different mastery criteria made me really excited about the possibility of answering questions that spark my curiosity, through research.

A few months into working at the lab, thanks to the support and encouragement from my research mentor, Dr. Fienup, I began asking my own research questions, and conducted my first study looking at transfer of statistical reasoning. I enjoyed the process from beginning to end: reading heaps of literature, developing study materials (I had to learn to code to do this!), running participants, analyzing data, and the cherry on top: getting significant results.

Since then, I’ve applied to graduate school, got in, worked on nearly a dozen more studies, and there’s no end in sight. I continue to be fascinated with learning theories, and now, I’m also surrounded by others who have the same interests, goals, and challenges. What’s more is I started doing research in classrooms, so I can see how my work translates to real schools. I’ve been asking, and answering, more challenging and more meaningful questions, and my research skills have grown and will continue to grow.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I am doing research at an ed tech company or a university and am beginning to write my first book. I’m also working with and mentoring students.

What is one piece of advice you would give someone considering science research?
Try it. Join a lab as a research assistant and just try it. Try something you didn’t expect would interest you. You might be surprised! Then, while you’re there, make friends. Talk to people. The key to turning situational interest into well-developed individual interest is social support (Bergin, 2016). So, surround yourself with people who are into the same research you’re into and you can geek out together!

Posted by:Cognitive Ties

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