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CIE Researcher of Distinction, December 2015

Felicia JacksonFelicia Jackson

Each month, the Center for Inclusive Education showcases the outstanding research being conducted by one of our talented scholars in our Research Café series. In addition, we recognize this scholar as a Researcher of Distinction and share the details of his/her journey to becoming an accomplished scholar. This month's Researcher of Distinction is Felicia Jackson, PhD candidate in the Department of Clinical Psychology. Felicia presented her talk, ‘Unpredictability: The role of unpredictability in the etiology and maintenance of anxiety disorders’ on Tuesday, December 8, 2015.



I was born and raised in Gainesville, Florida. In high school I took a psychology course that I really enjoyed, but I found that I was most curious about the role of the brain in behavior-- so I went into college knowing that I wanted to major in psychology and neuroscience, but I wasn’t sure exactly which direction I wanted to go with it. I ended up pursuing both majors at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. When I was an undergrad, I’d heard from advisors that research experience was an important component of getting into graduate school. At the time I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do with my life, but to cover my bases I decided that I should get some experience in a psychology lab. To be honest, I didn’t love it at first—I was doing pretty basic undergrad research assistant tasks—things like data entry and transcribing recordings. It was difficult at that level to be very invested in my own research project, but working in that lab turned out to be a critical turning point in my life. I worked in that lab for over two years as an undergraduate, and then after graduation, the PI offered me a full-time job to work as a lab coordinator. For three years after graduation I got the research experience that really changed my life. We were studying memory development and the neural correlates of emotional and autobiographical memories, and I absolutely loved it! It was during those three years that—as my previous boss would say—I was “bit by the research bug.” That’s also where I first used EEG to study the brain, a method that I still utilize in my research.

Felicia's Current Research

Describe the work you presented for your Research Café.

As a Turner Fellow, I am pursuing my PhD in Clinical Psychology and conducting research in the lab of Dr. Greg Hajcak. My research utilizes neural and psychophysiological measures (i.e. EEG and eyeblink startle) to investigate the role of sensitivity to unpredictability in the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. To examine this, we have conducted a number of studies exploring how unpredictable contexts (e.g. inconsistent tones) and unpredictable threat (e.g. electric shocks) effect neural and psychophysiological measures of fear and anxiety. I will be presenting the results from several studies, demonstrating that sensitivity to unpredictability may indeed be a core element of anxiety. I will explore the possible implications of this research in treatment of anxiety disorders, and will discuss future research directions.

Are there any other projects you are currently working on?

In my Research Café I talked about how sensitivity to unpredictability may be indexed by the neural response to errors, and how this may be related to the development and maintenance of anxiety disorders. But it’s not enough to know what’s happening in the brain-- the bigger question is how can we leverage what we know about the brain to help improve the quality of life of those suffering from anxiety? To this end, we have conducted a number of studies examining how various interventions can change these neural indices and decrease symptoms of anxiety. Additionally, we’ve been examining how the brain develops across childhood and adolescence. This early period of life is when most mental disorders have their onset, so it’s important that we understand the changes that take place in the brain that may lead to the development of psychopathology. In particular, I’m working on a project investigating how sensitivity to unpredictability may be involved in the development of social anxiety disorder.

What was the deciding factor for you to come to Stony Brook for your graduate studies?

From the beginning I knew I wanted to work with Dr. Greg Hajcak. I thought his research was incredible and I was so excited to join his lab because everyone was hard-working, intelligent and clearly had a passion for the science (on top of just being good people).

What are your future goals?

I would love to one day have my own lab, mentor graduate students and continue to build on the research I’ve started in graduate school. But in addition to that, I definitely want to utilize my clinical training and continue to work with clients who are struggling with anxiety and depression.

What do you enjoy most about research?

There’s something amazing about the fact that I can make a career of being curious. The research environment is constantly engaging and intellectually challenging, and on top of that, I get to work with people who are equally motivated to ask new questions and better understand human behavior.