“…A defining feature of being human is the variety of forms that being human takes…And the question is, how do we adapt?”
An Interview with Marina Bedny, PhD
Associate Professor, Psychological and Brain Sciences
Johns Hopkins University
Was science and the research world always something on your mind growing up?
For me, it was driven partly by the questions that I’m interested in and partly a bumbling, trial-and-error pathway. I’ve always been interested in nature-nurture questions, but I could imagine addressing them from a variety of perspectives, [like anthropology] or philosophy. I did the remainder by trial and error.
When I was in college, I tried various volunteer positions and jobs in laboratories. I took a bunch of different classes and followed my nose to the discipline that I really liked because there are things you want to read and things you are interested in, but then what are you going to be satisfied doing day to day? What kinds of questions are going to get you up in the morning?
Can you talk about your research and the questions that are exciting to you right now?
I’m interested in the contribution of experience, as opposed to innate predispositions, to the brain and the organization that we find in our minds. [Humans] share all this knowledge and have a lot of in common, but at the same time, a defining feature of being human is the variety of forms that being human takes, right? Whether it’s the job you have or the place you live—whether you’re living in New York City or a Hunter-Gatherer society or in the Arctic—we do well in all of these settings, unlike other species. And the question is, how do we adapt? How does experience wire our mind and brain? How does a stable, innate predisposition interact to allow us to change and adapt to all these environments?
One of the ways I’ve been working on it with my lab is by comparing the minds and brains of people with different experiences. A bunch of the work in the lab has been working with people who are blind from birth. [We compare] critical organization and conceptual representations across people who are blind from birth, people who are sighted, and people who become blind later in life to ask what the unique contribution is of early vision, as opposed to seeing later in life, to the way that our brains and our minds work.
It seems like there are a lot of interesting pieces that come out of that, one of which is that you don’t need direct sensory access to know things. Most of the things that we know we probably haven’t found out by merely looking and smelling and hearing, but rather by sharing knowledge with other people. So, when one sensory channel is not available, we’re good at culturally soaking up that information using other channels including language and our hypothesis testing and inferential abilities. Our brain is extremely flexible in terms of the kinds of information it can represent, [such as] the visual cortex adapting to blindness.
What’s one piece of good advice you’ve received?
I think when something feels right, but you can’t imagine the outcome, you should just do it and see what happens next. I remember when I was a postdoc working with Rebecca Sachs at MIT, there was this lovely undergraduate student who said, “Hey, you know, I would like to work with you in the lab.” This was a blind undergraduate student; she had no relevant experience, she just seemed like a lovely, smart student. And I was like, well, I don’t know, what are we going to do together?
And I remember Rebecca saying, “Well, I don’t know what you’re going to do together, but if you like this person, surely it’ll be an interesting and enriching experience for both of you. Just go for it.” And she’s one of my good friends now; I feel like I learned things from her all the time about her first-person insight into what it’s like to be a blind woman living in the United States. She’s a great friend, but also that’s invaluable to me.
Has there been anything that’s surprised you having a life in research and academia?
When I was a student, I didn’t anticipate the degree to which my life as an academic would revolve around the lives of my students and the postdocs in my lab. I feel like my life is so much more social than I realized, it’s really a big part of being an academic, it’s all about teamwork and interacting with different kinds of people, bringing your different skills to the table to achieve something new.
Has studying people and the mind affected how you personally look at the world?
One of the most fun parts of doing this work is getting to interact with people who have different life histories, whether it’s people who have been blind since they were born, or people who have expertise in a particular domain. I meet people with these different slices of experience, and I think that enriches your own life because you get to learn about the different ways that people can be people.
Another thing I’ve learned is just how much the things I know and do depend on the fruits of the labor of others. I think sometimes you don’t see the way that what you’re really doing as a scientist is picking up the baton and carrying it one more step. It’s generations of knowledge that have been handed down to you that you’re internalizing and able to take advantage of and then hand it off to the next generation of scientists.