Collaborative Champion: Melissa Beck

LSU Research magazine coverMelissa Beck, professor of psychology, heads up the Beck Visual Cognition Research Lab, conducting cutting-edge research on visual attention and memory, and serves on the executive committee for the LSU MIND group, or the Multidisciplinary Initiative for Neuroscience Discovery. She’s been described as “the glue” for various cross-campus collaborations, but in her mind, it’s all about starting new conversations.





Dr. Melissa Beck

What got you started with collaboration across disciplines?

When I first came to LSU, I was doing basic science research with my graduate students while also doing applied collaborative research at the Human Factors Group at the Naval Research Laboratory at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. We were looking at how pilots allocate attention to digital maps while they’re flying and how their expertise develops. I learned how to take basic research and apply it to different areas while working with people who aren’t cognitive psychologists.


Are there any disadvantages to working collaboratively on applied research?

Applied research is slower. In basic research, if I have a research idea, I can go down to the lab and program something on the eye tracker and collect data within a few weeks. With the applied stuff, there’s a lot more conversation that needs to happen, translating across disciplines. Also, I might have to move away from some of the methodology I’m most comfortable with.


Tell us more about the MIND group.

Since September 2018, we’ve focused on trying to strengthen research opportunities related to neuroscience at LSU. We’re still trying to increase awareness and bring people together so they can start having conversations about how to collaborate and work together in ways we aren’t able to do alone.

At all universities, silos get created. Someone in engineering might think psychology is therapy—and it is!—but there’s also this huge other area of psychology called cognitive science. It doesn’t occur to them that we have all of these people with skills and the ability to study interesting problems that are related to business or marketing or engineering. We could collaborate, but people don’t understand what our skills are, and vice versa. Not unless we have conversations.


Elaborate on these conversations?

Lately, I’ve been working with faculty members in construction management and architecture on a grant submission to look at how architects and engineers communicate with each other around design. People from different disciplines have different conceptualizations of what they do. For example, they might cognitively perceive a building differently. So, how do we get them to communicate well with each other? It’s kind of meta, because the very thing we want to study—cross-discipline communication—is necessary during our collaboration. 

In our meetings, I find myself saying stuff like, ‘I understand this term to mean… while you seem to understand it to mean...’

It can be challenging. But the end product is much more interesting, more applicable, and well-rounded.


What is one of the MIND projects?

I’m leading a collaborative project on visual spatial reasoning. We’ve developed a training protocol to help improve spatial reasoning skills. These skills are predictors of success in science, technology, engineering, and math—or STEM—disciplines. We’re interested in questions like: Is spatial visualization and reasoning trainable? What cognitive processes are involved? 

We are measuring brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, and visual attention using eye tracking to better understand how cognitive processing changes with improvements in performance. This is a really exciting and interdisciplinary project since we have people from psychology, chemistry, and the Center for Computation & Technology all involved. So far, our data suggests that the skills are trainable. 

The goal of MIND is to do more projects like this and encourage more collaboration.


Were you a born collaborator?

I don’t think so. But what I do is try to explore every opportunity that comes my way. I don’t say, ‘I’m too busy; I can’t,’ when someone reaches out. I want to at least talk and see where it can go. That helps—just being open.


This story was one of the cover features of the 2019-2020 print issue of LSU Research magazine, on the theme of convergence.


Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development