Chantel Prat, an Associate Professor of Psychology and a Co-Director of the UW Cognition and Cortical Dynamics Laboratory, seeks to understand the neural basis of individual differences in language and cognition. She studies the mind-brain relationship within single individuals, trying to comprehend the interplay between one’s biology and one’s experiences (nature versus nurture). Dr. Prat and her lab members utilize several methods, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and individual differences research. Prior to joining the UW faculty, she obtained her PhD in Cognitive Psychology from the University of California, Davis and spent five subsequent years working as a Postdoctoral Fellow and as a Special Research Faculty at Carnegie Mellon University’s Psychology Department and Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging.
What message would Dr. Prat like others to take from her work? “There is a lot more flexibility in shaping the brain and its circuits than researchers previously believed. Neurogenesis, or the ability to grow new neurons, seems to happen much later in life than we originally thought. Through targeted training, we can help individuals reach their potentials and extend their cognitive capacities.”
In an interview with UW ADVANCE, Dr. Prat discusses her interest in psychology and some of her accomplishments.
Q&A: Professional interests and accomplishments
Q: How did you become interested in your current field of work?
A: I started on an accelerated pre-med track as a 19-year old undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego. I needed to take one social science course before I could apply to medical school, so I enrolled in a psychology class at a community college. It turns out that I fell in love with the subject matter! I remember hearing the story of Phineas Gage, a railroad construction foreman who damaged most of his brain’s left frontal lobe in an accident. I was fascinated by the idea that damage to your brain could change your personality, and the broader idea that your brain is you. These ideas totally captivated me. Fortunately, UCDS had a strong and large cognitive science department, so I changed my major from pathology to psychology. Once I transitioned out of medicine I knew I wanted to do brain science. I love following my questions and curiosity, and being the first person in the whole world to know something. Ever since I began doing neuroscience research, I’ve always been the kind of person who will literally stay up all night with a dataset because I want to know the answer.
Q: Do you have any accomplishments that you would like to highlight?
A: My source of greatest pride is literally sitting here right now [in a picture frame]. I had a kid when I was 19 years old. I was a single, teen mom and worked full time to put myself through my undergraduate and graduate education. I’ve always been very transparent about the fact that I’m a mom and that I’m proud to have raised a healthy and successful child. That was way more difficult than the demands of academia! When I wrote my application for my UW faculty position, I included some of the skills I have acquired as a mom, such as prioritizing and multitasking, into my personal statement. In my student mentoring, I use my own story to push students beyond their own doubts. Nobody should have an excuse not to succeed. Students from all walks of life, particularly those from underrepresented backgrounds, often say to me, “okay, you’re inspirational to me because you didn’t fail and you should have.” I am delighted when I can give others opportunities to succeed.