Journey Through Academia with Dr. Signy Sheldon
Dr. Signy Sheldon is an associate professor in the department of psychology at McGill University. Sheldon studies human memory with a focus on understanding how and why we recover detailed memories from our lives as well as the situations that can affect the way we remember, such as stressful and emotional situations. The reason she studies memory is because “memory is fundamental to almost every aspect of human life – memory defines who we are, determines what we talk about and helps direct our futures. Memory is also severely affected in many conditions that affect the populations, ranging from depression to dementia, so gaining insight into the way memory functions can help us better understand these conditions.”
Tell us about your educational background.
I started off doing my undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. When I started this degree, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. In fact, I thought I wanted to go into Physiotherapy. This was because I was a track and field athlete. However, I was really drawn towards my psychology classes. Not so much because they were easier than the other classes, but because the content raised so many questions that I couldn’t get out of my mind! I was fascinated by the topic and being about to “think about how people think”.
After my undergraduate degree, I took some time off to work in a research laboratory studying language and the brain and also worked in a rehabilitation hospital. This was such an important “stop” in my educational “trip”. Here, I got hands-on experience in a research lab and in a clinic. I loved it.
From there, I went to Toronto where I got my Masters and PhD in Psychology. My PhD focused on the functions of memory to tasks beyond remembering, like problem solving and planning. I was able to learn neuroimaging and work with patient populations, but most importantly, I was able to learn how to think critically and ask questions. This is the most important skill I learned: to ask questions and also to engage in discussions.
After my PhD, I then did a post-doc in a neurosurgery department working with stroke patients and then a post-doc where I studied how memory is processed in the brain using fMRI. Shortly after,I began to apply for jobs and voila, I ended up starting my lab at McGill in 2015!
This path was as straightforward as it sounds. Many times along the road, I thought about – and actually applied – to non-academic positions. I was also worried about having to move to a place for my job that wouldn’t work for my family. When I hit these tough times, I kept trying to tell myself “do what will make you happy in your day to day” and that truly is researching memory.
What were some obstacles you had to conquer in academia?
A big obstacle I had, and I think many people have, is learning to deal with failures. Failures are natural and a part of learning, but that doesn’t mean they are easy to deal with! When I first started doing research in graduate school, I had a hypothesis for how memory contributed to language. I ran a behavioral experiment and didn’t find results to support that hypothesis. I was so worried I had failed and that my supervisor was going to be angry with me. When I “confessed” to him what the results were from the experiment, he smiled brightly and said “well, now, we get to rethink our hypothesis”! He helped me learn that science isn’t about being right, and being wrong is not a failure.
“My family and partner were great supporters, but the most important support I had – and still have – were my fellow grad students. My grad school friends really understood the peaks and valleys of research”
What is your earliest memory of being interested in science?
I remember finding a book about science experiments at a garage sale with my brother when I was quite young, say seven years old. This book was so fascinating to me – it had this one experiment where you could use purple cabbage to measure acidity! My brother and I started doing all these experiments, including that cabbage experiment, but then went “off script” and started inventing our own experiments! I was hooked!
How has belonging to a minority group shaped your research career?
Being a woman in academia has come with its challenges. I think women must work harder to “prove” themselves to the scientific community than men. As well, I think there is a notion that a woman who is funny or having fun is not as smart compared to a funny man. My hope is that this is changing and to help with this change, I try to be vocal about this issue and lead by example: be the scientist I want to be rather than what is expected of me.
Have you ever failed at something? How did you deal with it?
Many times! Academia is full of seemingly failures – papers and grants get rejected on a regular basis. When this happens, I make sure to take time to acknowledge how I am feeling about that rejection (sad!), do something that makes me feel a bit better (this is usually cuddling with my dog!) and then try to see how I can learn from it. Not easy to do and it often feels mechanical, but I definitely feel better on the other end.
What was the best piece of advice you received throughout your career?
Someone once told me that when I start to think about research as a job, rather than an opportunity, that’s when the fun stops!
What piece of advice would you give young students wanting to get involved in research?
“I am most proud seeing my student really enjoy the scientific process and learn to ask these amazing questions about memory. It blows me away!”
My best advice is to go into it with an open mind! Remember that research is about learning and is a process. While the main aim is to get to some outcome, you have to be aware that the path to that outcome and the outcome itself might change.
Practically, my advice is to take time to learn basic skills that will help you become a researcher. This includes learning how to organize data, learning to code and conduct literature searches. The library has wonderful workshops, so take advantage of those!
Did you always know what you wanted to do?
Not at all! I think I always knew I wanted to do something where I get to “solve puzzles” and learn, but I don’t think I ever imagined that I would be a professor. That was something that just naturally came as I went along my education path.