Kim Archambeau from the Action Bias & Control Group, directed by Wim Gevers, won the prize for best master’s thesis at the latest BAPS (Belgian Association for Psychological Sciences) meeting held on Thursday May 28th. Kim completed her master’s thesis, titled “Investigation of associations between ordinal position in working memory and space”, under the supervision of Véronique Ginsburg and Wim Gevers.
Congratulations on your winning the BAPS Best Thesis Award. Could you give us a summary of your thesis?
The starting point of my master thesis came from van Dijck and Fias, who recently demonstrated an association between ordinal position of verbal information in working memory and space. So, in other words, they showed that when participants memorize a sequence of words while they are performing a categorization task on them, they respond generally faster with the left hand for words presented early in the sequence and faster with the right hand for words presented later in the sequence. This association is termed the “ordinal position effect”. This effect was only observed with verbal material. Therefore, the aim of my master thesis was to determine whether the ordinal position effect reflects a general processing mechanism underlying working memory functioning. To find this out we directly compared ordinal position effect for verbal and spatial material. The results did not show a spatial ordinal position effect and so we observed a clear dissociation between verbal and spatial information. At this point, the reason of this dissociation was not clear. We did not know why this ordinal position effect disappears with spatial material. It could be either because the items are presented spatially or because participants did not use a verbal strategy to solve spatial condition. So in a further experiment we investigated if an ordinal position effect could be observed on visual (but not spatial) material stored in working memory. In addition to this, we investigated if the verbalization of information is necessary to create an ordinal position effect. The results showed that the ordinal position effect is only observed when participants have to verbalize the information. Consequently, the verbalization of memorized information, whatever modality of presentation, seems essential to create spatial coding of ordinal information.
For the people who did not attend the BAPS meeting, could you describe the prize you have won and the award ceremony?
It was an idea of Wim’s to submit my thesis for this prize. In September, candidates for the best thesis award had to submit an abstract of their master thesis and based on this abstract the BAPS chose four candidates to continue to the second round. At that point, we were required to send our full thesis to the BAPS committee and after that they chose the winner. I have been invited to present my thesis at the annual BAPS meeting. I was quite nervous for this presentation. I was hoping for an almost empty conference room because the presentation was scheduled at the end of the day. But it turned out there were a lot of people in the audience because Todd Braver’s keynote talk had been rescheduled right after my presentation.
You performed your master’s research project in Wim’s AB&C group. How did you come to do your master’s research project with Véronique and Wim?
During my first year of master’s degree I followed a research course in which different researchers in the CRCN presented their research topic. I found Véronique’s topic very interesting so I chose this group to do my seminar. And I liked very much this research topic and also the interaction with Véronique and Wim and so I decided to do a research internship with them as well. During this internship I investigated working memory linked with numerical cognition. I really liked the intellectual stimulation of doing research and I was very involved in my research project and so I decided to continue with Véronique and Wim. After my internship, I worked on my master thesis. We concurrently submitted a doctoral research proposal.
Now you’re a Ph.D. student at AB&C. Could you tell us about your current research project?
The goal of my current research project is to better understand potential changes of arithmetic abilities with age. The study of such changes would inform us about whether and how arithmetic abilities are related to the approximate number system (ANS) but also general cognitive processes. There is a link with my master thesis but the focus is different, now it’s more on aging and numerical cognition. Some general processing mechanisms decline with age, such as working memory. Numerical abilities related to general cognitive mechanism also decline but the ANS is considered to be resistant to this decline. Personally I am a little bit skeptical about this. But it’s a topic not very well investigated, which is also the reason why we study this.
In which specific directions do you think your research might or should go from here?
At the theoretical level, I hope that this project will allow us to demonstrate whether arithmetic abilities depend more on the ANS or on general cognitive processing. And more specifically, we aim at identifying which processes are related to what. My research project is funded via the FRESH grant, which supports research with a societal impact. Thus an essential part of the project concerns potential practical applications, as setting up specific intervention studies with the aim to improve arithmetic abilities.
How is being a PhD student in the AB&C group different from your time as a master’s student in the group?
It’s different, very different, but I don’t know exactly why. Oh wait I know: now I am invited to Wim’s pool party! That’s a good difference!
Interview by Dalila Achoui.