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A Richter you should know: Sushmeena Parihar

Why is Sushmeena Parihar ’20 flailing her arms and performing an inexplicable series of dance moves? It’s all in the name of science. Parihar and her partner Rose Allen ’20 are working with Professor of Psychology Matthew Kelley to research counterintuitive cognition and memory.

This psychology major from Mumbai, India is a Richter Scholar you should know. 

Q: What is all the arm-flailing about?

A: “When you think of memory, memory doesn’t always have to be remembering a list of words—all your senses have some sort of memory stored. Professor Kelley introduced us to spatial memory and that inspired us to look at movement. I’m a dancer, so every time I would step into a dance class my instructor would say, ‘You should practice more so it becomes a muscle memory.’ The idea of looking at movements and how well we remember them is procedural memory. We designed an experiment to test this by recording these silly videos of me doing all sorts of movements. That’s the material that participants have to remember. We made a list of 100 moves and put it into a randomizer, which spit out 12 moves that became our combination. This randomness makes the moves look so silly because the combination is not something that either of us have coordinated to look nice. The participants see me perform the moves on a screen and sometimes they have to follow along or sometimes they just have to watch it.”

Q: How did you come up with your experiment?

A: “I love dancing, so a part of my brain is always thinking about dance. You could say anything—’mango’—and I would find a way to relate it to dance. When we were reading all of these research articles, all I heard was my dance instructor talking about muscle memory. Rose was interested in photography and pictures, so I said, ‘You like this, I like this, let’s put them together.’ It was like connecting the dots. I think that that works best—when you have a partner who you are comfortable working with so you both are on the same page and look at each other as a team.”

Q: How long did it take you to record the video?

A: “A while. We were lucky no one else was in Hotchkiss. It could have taken us about a half an hour but it took longer because we were laughing so hard.” 

Q: How is it working with Professor Kelley?

A: “Professor Kelley is such a good professor. In a week he got us up to speed on such advanced topics. I thought the first week, when we were reading and thinking about possible experiments, would be the hardest part because the readings are written for graduate students and professionals. On my own, understanding those concepts would have been really difficult, but Professor Kelley just made it so easy. He gives you the right amount of control and freedom, so he leaves you alone but not so much so that you are panicking and setting everything on fire.”

Q: What is something you have learned?

A: “I’m planning on writing a senior thesis. As freshmen, we come in and a thesis sounds so unachievable: only those that dare can do it. But, being a part of the Richter Program, I realized just how simple it can be. If you enjoy what you are doing, if you are really passionate about what you are studying, the design is going to fall into place in no time, the experiment will be ready, and you are going to have fun with it.”

Q: Has this experience encouraged you to do more research?

A: “It’s encouraging me all right. The Richter Program has gotten me so pumped. I don’t want to wait to do my senior thesis senior year, I honestly want to start it now. I’ve even looked up the requirements for a PhD.”

Q: How will this experience help you prepare for the future?

A: “This experience opens up your eyes to all these opportunities available to you. Especially at a school like Lake Forest College, with the small student-to-teacher ratio, they are really open to helping you succeed. I’m joking about starting my thesis now, but I know that, if I did want to do research, there’s not one professor in the psych department who wouldn’t help me get going. And I think that’s true of all the departments here: everyone is trying to build each other up and help each other so that collectively all of us achieve our dreams.”

–By Tracy Koenn and Sophie Mucciaccio