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.
Brittany A. Harman is a 5th year Ph.D. candidate in Cognitive Science in the Psychology Department at Stony Brook University.
What is the focus of your research?
When I first came to Stony Brook, my research was focused on anything related to eyewitness memory because I wanted something that I felt would make a significant contribution to the world. To put it into perspective, DNA evidence has led to the exoneration of hundreds of innocent people who were wrongfully convicted of crimes and of the first 325 DNA exonerations, 72% (235 cases) involved false identification by eyewitnesses (check out The NY Innocence Project’s for more info on this!).
My then-advisor works with the NY Innocence Project as an eyewitness memory expert. She testifies in court to educate jurors regarding the limitations of eyewitness memory. This is what I ultimately wanted to do in life, but since that time, I’ve begun to have some concerns and ethical dilemmas regarding the generalizability of lab-based memory research. Instead of training to become an eyewitness memory expert who testifies in court, I decided to focus on conducting eyewitness memory research in general. I became interested in situations in which an eyewitness gets “caught up” in the excitement following a crime and exaggerates details of the event in the presence of other witnesses—particularly, my work began to focus on the impact of co-witness exaggeration on another witness’s memory for the crime. Now, in an effort to conduct research that overlaps with my new advisor who, among other things, is a psycholinguist, I am researching the consequences of exposure to exaggeration in general—on comprehension, memory, and behavior.
Overall, though, I’m solely interested in cognitive research that has direct applicability to the real world. I’m not interested in theory for the sake of theory; I’m only interested in things that can be used to help people. Making those connections between my most current work and the real world is something I’ve been struggling with.
Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time? What are your hobbies?
If you can’t find me on campus, then I guarantee I’m with my beagles, Ellie and Finn. They go everywhere with me, other than school. I take them for a 45 minute walk every day, then take them into my backyard to play ball. On the weekends during the summer months, I take them to the dog park so they can socialize with other dogs. They are the most important things in my life.
I am also a huge Broadway fanatic. Wicked is my favorite show, but I love Les Mis, The Phantom of the Opera, The Book of Mormon, and I also recently saw Hamilton. That show was incredible. I will gladly give up eating for a week or two in order to afford Broadway tickets!
What are you passionate about?
I’m very passionate about social issues, like equal rights for women, civil rights for people from different races/ethnicities, LGBT rights, and other minority-group rights. Sometimes this takes the form of being passionate about politics, but in general, I’m just passionate about educating people regarding the fact that, as humans, we aren’t all that different from one another and therefore, should all be given equal opportunities and respect.
I’m also really passionate about animals, particularly dogs. I would love to start my own beagle rescue organization in the future, when I have the financial means to do so. Beagles are the dog breed most frequently used in animal testing and since adopting two of my own, I’ve become very interested in being an advocate for putting an end to experimentation on animals.
Who is a female scientist you look up to and why?
Dr. Barbara Miller, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, is the type of scientist I aspire to be. When I was 18 months old, I was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia and was treated at Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, PA, primarily by Dr. Miller. She saved my life and I genuinely don’t think I would be here today if not for her.
While I don’t remember much about the experience of having cancer, I do remember interacting with Dr. Miller as I grew up and returned to the hospital for follow-up appointments. She always cared so much about me and about ensuring that I was healthy. That was very evident to me, even as a child. I’m also aware of the affinity and respect that my parents seem to have for her whenever she comes up in conversation. This is a woman who, through her passion for her work and dedication to her patients, has saved so many lives.
If I can make even half of the contribution to the world that she has, I’ll consider my life a success.
Tell us your personal story in science + research. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
Sometimes I wonder this myself. Like, how did I even end up here?
Being an undergraduate psychology major, I chose cognition as the main area that I was interested in after taking a class with a professor named Lea Adams. I was really interested in the material and saw an infinite number of ways to apply this research to the real world, so I stuck with it. Eventually I got a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in psychology with Lea as my advisor.
After my first master’s degree, I decided to apply for PhD programs because I wanted to be a professor. By that point, I’d become really interested in memory research, particularly the studies conducted by Beth Loftus in the 1970s on eyewitness memory. Based on this interest, I applied to several universities that had researchers who published in this field and long story short, I joined Stony Brook.
Since starting here, I’ve admittedly become somewhat disillusioned with the eyewitness memory research. It’s one thing to bring college students into a lab room, show them some videos or pictures, wait twenty minutes, and then ask them to remember what was previously presented to them—making claims about the memory of real eyewitnesses in the courtroom, however, is another thing entirely and since really delving into the research findings and the methodology that supports it, I’m just not comfortable putting myself in a position where my testimony may influence the lives of other people.
After making the decision that expert testimony wasn’t for me, I found myself in a slump. There were two years during which I felt absolutely no motivation to conduct research. I’d come up with a research idea, try to figure out a way to test my question, start designing an experiment…and then I’d give up. It felt so artificial and just not worth the time, money, and effort. But abandoning research entirely is not an option in a PhD program, and quite frankly, there’s no time allocated to “find yourself” either. As a doctoral student, it’s either be productive or perish.
Having conducted two experiments on the influence of exposure to co-witness exaggeration on memory, I decided to do something related for my third year specialties requirement. Since I had become skeptical of the eyewitness memory research, I decided to try to apply what I knew about memory and exaggeration to a new domain: Consumer psychology. I ended up spending my third year in the program doing an extensive literature review and critique of the marketing research on the use of exaggeration in advertisement. This gave me a better understanding of the influence of exposure to exaggeration on human decision-making and behavior. Then came another big turning point for me.
During the first semester of my fourth year in the PhD program, I was struggling to figure out where to go . I was still in an eyewitness memory lab, and I honestly didn’t know what do to—so I ended up not doing much of anything. Every attempt at even starting a research project immediately led to a barrage of doubt, questions about validity, and a search for an answer to what would really be gained from the experiments.
By the next semester, I had to start making decisions about whether or not I was going to leave the program or stay and complete a dissertation. So I spent two months trying (and failing) to generate ideas for my first dissertation experiment on exaggeration in an eyewitness memory context.
Two months into the second semester of my fourth year in the program, I changed research labs. Although this decision probably seemed abrupt to most people, it was a long time coming for many reasons, both personal and professional. So a little over a year prior to my expected graduation date, I found myself with a new advisor who had his own style of advising and his own research interests. In an effort to complete the program and conduct research that overlaps with that of my new advisor, I am currently preparing to complete a dissertation on the pragmatics of hyperbole, or the influence of conversational overstatement on comprehension, memory, and behavior.
I’d say that I’m definitely still trying to “find myself.” I’m still a work in progress when it comes to knowing exactly where my research interests lie.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Honestly, my dream job is to be a professor of cognitive psychology at Shippensburg University, where I received my bachelor’s degree and my first master’s degree. There’s something about that place that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. Small classes, students have one-on-one access to the professors, and it’s just a very positive atmosphere in terms of facilitating intellectual growth for students.
It’s funny, actually, that Ship has become such a big part of my life. I enrolled at that college on a whim. As a first generation college student, I had very little guidance in terms of where I should apply as an undergrad and I picked Ship because it was one of the few colleges I was familiar with, it was close to home, and it was cheap. That was pretty much it. And I just so happened to be lucky enough to find myself in the most supportive, encouraging, nurturing environment that I could ever imagine. That place is home for me and I’d very much like to return there.
Can you talk about one more moment of discouragement and how you overcame it?
One important thing I’ve learned is that sunk cost bias-type thinking is a trap. This is when someone thinks that, because they have already invested so much time, effort, resources, etc. into something, they have to see it through to the end. This is simply not the case. What’s worse than spending 3 years in a bad situation? Spending 3 years and 1 day in a bad situation. When something isn’t working out, whether it is an experiment, a relationship, a program at a university, etc., it is important to realize that there’s a point at which enough is enough. You have to make a change.
In terms of what keeps me motivated to pursue my work—I’m not sure if I’m really the best person to answer this question, because there have been many times that I’ve been very unmotivated to pursue my work. In fact, I’ve become disillusioned with entire areas of research and have completely abandoned them. Never looked back. In general, though, the thing that really motivates me is the desire to learn as much as I can and to become a better scientist so that some day, I can be a very good teacher.
I owe my success to a number of very good teachers, who have inspired me, supported me, and encouraged me. Many of them actually still play significant roles in my life to this day, even though they aren’t gaining anything by continuing to support me. Because I know the value of a great teacher, this is what I aspire to be—someone who not only passes on knowledge about a subject or expertise in a particular topic, but someone who is genuinely invested in the success of their students.
I don’t want my students, past, present, or future, to follow in my footsteps. I want them to find their own path and I view my role as being there to assist them in any way that I can, whenever they might need me. I’ve come to believe that, while both instruction on a topic and prompting students to think deeply about a subject are very important, there are some things that can’t be explicitly taught. Research and knowledge advancement and the application of these endeavors are products of hard work and passion. These things cannot be forced on someone—they have to come from the individual, and the efforts of a teacher should be to support and encourage growth in a positive, healthy way.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone considering science research?
I would suggest that, before committing to anything, you know the ins and outs of that topic. Hearing about a topic in class, skimming a few articles, maybe reading a Wikipedia page…that’s not enough. Until you’ve really gotten to know what it is that you think you are interested in, you won’t know whether or not it’s right for you.
Talk to professors in the field, talk to graduate students. Know the controversies that exist in the literature and know where you stand in regards to those. Understand that there are limitations to everything and decide whether or not you are ok with that. And most importantly, know what is DONE with that research. What are the consequences of the research in this field? How is it applied? Do you have any ethical concerns? Research has real world implications—it’s more than just sitting in a lab choosing stimuli or entering some numbers into a spreadsheet. It can have real consequences for real people and that’s important to take into consideration.