Dr. Micaela Chan’s Ph.D. Dissertation Selected as One of UT Dallas’ Best
DALLAS - MAY 4, 2017 - Having been with the Center for Vital Longevity since it was founded, Micaela Chan has steadily climbed the academic ladder, earning her Ph.D. just last year and most recently being celebrated by UT Dallas for the very dissertation that helped her "earn the Dr. title."
This spring UT Dallas' Office of Graduate Studies introduced an awards program honoring the top doctoral dissertation in each school. Winners of the inaugural 2017 “Best Dissertation Award” were announced at an April reception celebrating excellence in graduate education. Dr. Chan won the Behavior and Brain Sciences departmental award.
Early during her time at CVL, beginning in 2010, Chan – Dr. Chan, that is – gravitated toward studies associated with the Synapse Project, which explored how both brain activity and cognitive performance are sculpted by novel activities such as learning to use a tablet computer, quilting and digital photography. Surprisingly, Micaela almost didn’t go to college.
“My favorite class in high school was physical education,” she said one afternoon, after successfully defending the doctoral dissertation that earned her the UTD award. “I wasn’t a bookworm and I wasn’t known by my teachers as a particularly hard worker,” she said. “But I did end up applying to one college.”
She was accepted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she morphed into a self-described “research workaholic” while studying psychology and finishing her bachelor’s in just over three years.
During her graduate studies at CVL, her first paper as lead author appeared in The Gerontologist where she reported that adults who engaged in learning multiple new applications on a tablet computer improved their memory and speed in processing information compared to adults who socialized or worked on different tasks at home for 15 hours on an iPad each week for 10 weeks. Her next first-authored paper appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), when Micaela’s work slowly began to overlap with some areas of inquiry being scrutinized in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab led by Dr. Gagan Wig, with whom she started pursuing her doctorate and continues working for to this day.
Under Dr. Wig's supervision, she is studying how large-scale functional brain networks change over the adult lifespan, and how these changes influence cognitive performance. Her finding, published by PNAS in 2014, was that increasing age is associated with a blurring of organization among brain sub-networks – a process that may predict poor long-term memory, regardless of a person’s age.
The title of Dr. Chan’s dissertation was “Age-related Desegregation of Functional Systems in Healthy Adults: The Underlying Patterns of Connections and Protective Life-course Factors.” Her supervising committee consisted of Dr. Denise C. Park, Gagan S. Wig, Francesca M. Filbey and Jinkyung Na.
"Micaela’s dissertation work brought together the challenging disciplines of brain science and the science of networks," Dr. Wig said. "This is no easy feat; her dedication and hard work shone throughout the project and brought much needed clarity to an exciting new field of enquiry. I think the interdisciplinary nature of her work is one of the things that makes our School and University so special.”