People of I-LABS: Brianna Yamasaki

I-LABSPeople of I-LABS

Vibrant, super-smart and caring: these are just a few of the qualities that describe the dozens of interdisciplinary researchers at I-LABS. Their innovative ideas and technological savviness help drive the Institute’s reputation as a world leader in child development and brain science.And their kindness, professionalism and sense of humor greet all of the hundreds of families that volunteer each year for studies at I-LABS.In the “People of I-LABS” series, we get to know the research scientists, post-doctoral fellows and other researchers who make up the elite team at I-LABS.

Please tell us a little about yourself. Where do you come from? What are you doing at I-LABS?

I am a Pacific Northwest native! I actually started at UW (and joined the I-LABS family) as an undergrad. I am currently a 6th year graduate student working with Drs. Chantel Prat and Andrea Stocco.

Why did you decide to become a researcher?

I find the brain, and it’s capacity for learning, fascinating! My passion for research is motivated by a desire to understand individual differences and how the brain underpins these differences. I remember as an undergraduate, my advisor telling me that as researchers we get to be the first people in the world to know something. The idea that as a researcher I could be a part of helping to unravel some of the mysteries of the brain and sharing that new found knowledge with the community really motivated me to pursue a career in research.

What big questions to you hope to answer with your research?

Broadly speaking, I am interested in the interactions between cognitive and linguistic development. Ultimately, I would like to understand how individual differences in cognitive abilities, like executive attention, support and constrain both reading ability and disability.

What research questions are you working on now?

Currently, I am working on a model of second-language reading ability. We know a great deal about the types of cognitive and linguistic factors that predict first-language or monolingual reading ability and while we know that some of those factors also predict second-language reading ability, we also know that reading in a second-language is a unique experience. Therefore, in addition to the shared processes, there must also be specialized factors that contribute to individual differences in second-language reading ability. My hope for this line of research is to better understand the unique processes that support second-language reading ability, with the ultimate goal of using this knowledge to inform targeted interventions aimed at improving second-language reading ability.

What inspired you to study this topic?

Reading is central in today society, and research has shown that individual differences in reading ability predict academic, professional, financial, and health-related outcomes in life. Therefore, with the potential for such a big impact in one’s life, I feel that it is critical to better understand the factors that support and constrain reading abilities, especially in less well studied populations, like second-language readers.

What’s your most significant career accomplishment so far?

I have a strong passion for research, but I also appreciate the opportunity to teach and share the knowledge we have gained through research directly with students. Last year I was nominated for and received the University of Washington’s Excellence in Teaching Award, which is the highest award a graduate student can receive for their teaching. I was humbled to have even been nominated by my students, and speechless when I was selected for the award. I feel so grateful for the teaching experiences I have had and the many wonderful students I have gotten the chance to work with. As a teacher I try to foster an inclusive, open, and accessible learning environment and winning the Excellence in Teaching Award provided some validation that I was having the positive impact on students that I always strive for.

What’s your favorite part of working at I-LABS?

One of my favorite things about working at I-LABS is the truly diverse group of individuals that are a part of I-LABS. I believe that great research comes from the joining of many ideas and having such a diverse group of individuals working in I-LABS allows for this type of collaboration to occur.

What is your most exciting memory from being in the lab?

A few years ago Drs. Chantel Prat and Andrea Stocco, along with fellow researcher Dr. Rajesh Rao, were the first people in the world to successfully complete a direct brain-to-brain interference in humans. I remember being in the backroom of our lab (in I-LABS) witnessing the first successful attempt of the experiment. Everyone was so excited when the experiment was a success, and it was amazing to be able to be a part of it.

How can people use your discoveries in their own lives?

Much of my research has focused on understanding individual differences in various skills (e.g., reading ability, second-language learning). I think that it is common to think about “the average” applying to everyone, but my research highlights how that average doesn’t actually apply to everyone and emphasizes the diversity among us. I think it is an important perspective to keep in mind, that there are individual differences and that sometimes we need to be flexible in order to accommodate and truly celebrate those differences. 

What’s something we might not know about you? (something fun! Secret talents? Cool travels? Adorable pets?)

I am an avid collector of penguins – I have actually been collecting penguin things since I was in kindergarten!