Newsletter Article

Hunt Fellowship Supports the Birds and the Brains

The second annual Earl (Buz) and Mary Lou Hunt Endowed Fellowship for Graduate Students in Psychology went to Caglar Akcay (Animal Behavior, Advisor: Michael Beecher) and Kristie Fisher (Cognition and Perception, Advisor: Miriam Bassok). Prof. and Mrs. Hunt created this fund specifically to support graduate students who were conducting research outside the purview of their advisor’s grants. Each fellowship provides stipend, tuition waivers, and health insurance for one academic quarter. Students receiving the Hunt Fellowship are typically in the last stages of completing their doctoral dissertations.  Having this fellowship facilitates completion of the doctoral degree by eliminating the pressure of the extra work related to regular RA or TA positions. 

Photo of Caglar Akcay holding a tagged bird
Photo: Caglar Akcay holding a tagged bird

Caglar’s research seeks to understand how animals determine who to trust in an evolution of cooperation. Male song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) show cooperation by acting less aggressively toward birds whose territories neighbor their own, which is known as the “Dear Enemy Effect.” Caglar’s dissertation examines how song sparrows learn which birds are trustworthy and which are not.  He has already published the first studies from his thesis showing that sparrows do not have to experience aggressive behavior from another bird directly but can learn which birds to trust based on observation of their interactions with others. In his final dissertation study, Caglar is using the recording of birds who are intruding on another’s territory to determine whether  the sparrows can distinguish between retaliation and unprovoked intrusion based on their experience with eavesdropping on their neighbors’ interactions.  The findings will detail how territorial communication and cooperative acts works in nature, and these insights may be applicable to relationships in other living beings.


Photo:  Kristie Fisher
Photo: Kristie Fisher 

Kristie’s dissertation research is concerned with how people integrate their "real world" knowledge with their math knowledge when solving applied math problems and how this integration is reflected in brain activity.  By monitoring event-related brain potentials (ERP’s), Kristie has been able to show that humans can integrate concepts from their semantic and arithmetic knowledge as rapidly and fluently as they can comprehend sentences.  She showed this by testing how people's brains respond when they are shown simple word problem sentences containing object sets and operations that are well matched versus problems in which they are not well matched.  For example, adding 4 apples plus 6 oranges to equal 10 is fine, and the brain signals no errors.  But a statement like 6 roses plus 2 vases equals 8 represents a misalignment with people's real-world experience (adding vases to roses rather than dividing roses into vases).  The brain registers this mismatch with a P600 effect.  Moreover, the mathematically correct answers at the end of these "misaligned" word problems elicit an N400 effect, which suggests that the presence of mismatched object sets made the mathematically correct answers seem incorrect.  However, she found individual differences such that some research participants made an effort to ignore the objects in the word problem sentences, and no effects were found for this group.  She is currently conducting follow-up studies on these differences.  Kristie’s goal is to defend her dissertation later this quarter.

Thank you to Buz and Mary Lou for providing the means to our talented students in finishing their dissertations!

Link to the Previous Hunt Fellowship Recipients:

Link to Introduction to Hunt Fellowship: