Expected Graduation: Spring of 2011
Degree Objective: Ph.D. in Psychology
Other Degrees: B.A. in Psychology, M.S. in Psychology
When it comes to understanding human psychology, Elizabeth Simpson begins her research at birth.
Simpson studies infant social perception and facial identity recognition at UGA’s Infant Attention Lab. She is exploring the emergence of human facial identity during infancy and the nature of facial recognition across species.
“I want to know how face recognition develops,” said Simpson. “Can infants recognize human and animal faces equally well? At what point do we become human face ‘experts’?”
Simpson developed a keen enthusiasm for psychology during high school. She later attended the University of Arizona to pursue her interest where she discovered evolutionary psychology.
Her research career took flight when she began to study chimpanzee friendships and chimpanzees’ emotional reactions to music.
“Evolutionary psychology can help us understand not just how behaviors occur, but why they occur,” she said.
Following her chimpanzee research, Simpson now strives to uncover the secrets of human nature that occur only during the first year of life.
In a typical experiment, Simpson presents infants with an animal or human face on a large screen. After being familiarized with the first image, she displays a second, new face side-by-side with the first one. The contrasting images allow Simpson to manipulate animal type, human face and facial features.
While infants look at the two images, the researchers videotape the infant’s eye movements and looking behaviors. Simpson and her colleagues use this information to determine if infants can identify the first facial image. Manipulating facial features even allows Simpson to understand which cues infants use to recognize faces.
“Our finding so far indicate that young infants, before six months of age, are equally good at recognizing human and animal – monkey or sheep – faces,” said Simpson.
“By about nine months of age, infants lose the ability to recognize nonhuman faces and become better at recognizing human faces. This own-species advantage lasts into adulthood, as adults have a much easier time distinguishing human faces, compared to faces of other species.”
The research findings have possibilities to help broaden human perceptions throughout life.
According to Simpson, human perceptual abilities narrow with age. As an example, infants less than one year old can hear every phoneme, the smallest segmented unit of sound in conversation. Once infants turn one, they can recognize only phonemes in their native language. A similar phenomenon happens in infants with facial recognition.
“This process is very important because there is a window of opportunity for learning in infancy that will never be reopened later in life,” said Simpson. “Exposure to diverse faces during this point in development may allow for better perceptual abilities later in life.”
Her research could also give insight into helping people with prosopagnosia, a facial recognition condition. People afflicted with prosopagnosia sometimes cannot recognize the faces of their closest family member, friends or even themselves.
On top of her time spent in the infant lab, Simpson’s academic activity expands beyond infant research.
Last year she participated in the Graduate School’s Emerging Leaders program, and she has an inspired passion for teaching.
“Psychology has numerous applications to our day-to-day lives; guiding students to make those connections in their own lives is rewarding,” said Simpson.
She has already completed the Graduate School’s Interdisciplinary Certificate in University Teaching and the Teaching Portfolio Program as a testament to her teaching fervor. She and her fellow graduate students even founded the Psychology Educator Development Association, a group that provides academic, professional and social support for graduate teaching assistants.
Educational research has also opened up a new area of research to her: the psychology of teaching and learning.
Simpson and Wenyi Zhou of Indiana University examined the performance of Google documents used for collaborative writing projects. She also studied the effectiveness of video conferences that directly bring research demonstrations into the classroom with Krisztina Varga of James Madison University.
Her academic efforts at UGA have earned her the J. William Fanning Graduate Fellowship and the Graduate School’s Dissertation Completion Award.
After graduation next spring, Simpson sees herself taking a job at a university where she can both teach students and conduct research. Eventually, she hopes to run a laboratory where she can mentor students and inspire them as researchers.
Not content to stop there, she carries far-reaching research aspirations as well.
“In the more distant future, I hope to substantially contribute to the field of evolutionary psychology by uncovering mechanisms that underlie our social perception abilities and their developmental emergence,” said Simpson.