Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Francesca Capozzi talks to In The Spotlight about her nonlinear path in academia and her work on the hidden social dynamics in group interactions.
Research Area: Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience
Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Jelena Ristic
Tell us a bit about yourself: I am Italian, and I moved to Canada to start my postdoctoral fellowship almost four years ago. Believe it or not, when I was a kid, I had two dreams: becoming a psychologist and moving to Canada. Clearly, life has treated me well!
However, my path to get here was not linear. For example, when I started my undergraduate program in Psychology at the Federico II University of Naples in Italy, I leaned toward a clinical approach. I only fell in love with experimental research when I got involved in some research during my Masters at the University of Turin in Italy. I then pursued this interest with a Ph.D. program in Cognitive Neuroscience at the same university. Getting my Ph.D. and an international research profile allowed me to seek out competitive postdoctoral positions, and when I received an offer from Jelena Ristic here at McGill, I could hardly believe that I would be fulfilling my dream to move to Montreal. I was more than happy to accept her offer right away!
Tell us about your research in three sentences or less: I study the ways that we look at and attend to other people, and how this reflects hidden social dynamics when we interact in groups. We often do not realize it, but by looking at others we can express many things: interest or boredom, cooperation or competition, admiration or dislike. For example, in some of my recent work, I discovered a novel way to identify group leaders by studying visual behaviors within the group, such that leaders will often be the person who looks at others the least but is looked at the most. I also study how attention supports navigation within large groups or crowds, where people often have to quickly judge how relevant someone else’s behaviour is without being overwhelmed by the amount of people around them.
What excites you most about your work? I am really excited by the fact that I am one of the first researchers addressing these new issues of how attention works in groups and crowds. My field of social cognitive neuroscience has only recently started to examine the complexities of real-world interactions outside of the lab, so I enjoy the challenge of setting up new methods and the opportunity to interact with multiple scientists across the world to lay down a truly interdisciplinary approach to this area. A recent example of this is when I co-organized a symposium with Jelena Ristic at the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society this past November. This symposium, titled “Beyond a Single Participant: Interactive Social Cognition in Dyads and Groups” showcased state-of-the-art research in interactive settings, and I enjoyed presenting some of my work on group dynamics and shaping the public conversation on new and exciting research!
Is there any upcoming work you’d like to tell us about? Jelena Ristic and I recently wrote a review paper in The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, where we offer a novel theoretical perspective on how attention helps us select relevant social interactions among all possible options we encounter every day. Since we wrote the article for a broad audience, I hope it can benefit younger students and researchers from other domains to get excited about these fascinating themes. This type of work is also useful for non-academic settings since what I study can be applied to everyday life issues in business management, video-surveillance, or advertising.
We are also writing a new theoretical piece on attention in groups and crowds, so stay tuned for this over the next few months!
Do you have any experiences that have particularly shaped you or your research? I am grateful to my supervisors, both current and past – Cristina Becchio, Bruno Bara, Maurizio Tirassa, Andrew Bayliss, and Jelena Ristic. Each of them gave me a unique perspective on science and research and helped me shape my work with different contributions. Also, my mother the artist and my father the scientist always reminded me of who I am – especially in moments of fatigue or uncertainty during my journey in academia. They helped me find creative ways to mix up my talents and strengthen my weaknesses. Finally, I would not be the scientist I am without all the students I supervised or taught in class. The conversations I’ve had with them helped me hone my communication skills, and their questions enriched my understanding of research.
Do you have an interesting fact about yourself that you'd like to share? I like to spend my free time writing my thoughts and perspectives on society, movies, and books, and I recently started sharing some of these on a blog on Medium. This blog adventure started for fun one night when my partner challenged me to write a short piece on my ReMarkable device that I received as a birthday present. I discovered that blogging is very much an interesting writing exercise because it forces me to simplify even complex thoughts in the most accessible way and keeps my curiosity alive by requiring constant inspiration for new topics. I have enjoyed it since, and the challenge continues!
What's your favourite thing to do outside of your research? I enjoy good food, especially gathering with friends and beloved ones. I love reading crime novels and watching all sort of movies. Walking for hours, possibly in the nature, is also one of my favorite activities. I am drawn to art museums and they are definitely a go-to in all my travels. In Montreal, my favourite picks are the McCord Museum, where you can find unexpected poetic treasures, and the Museum of Fine Arts, which has an inspiring permanent collection and often hosts great temporary exhibitions.
What are your plans after leaving McGill? I do not know when I will leave McGill! After dedicating almost ten years to research, I decided to get back to schooling to complete my clinical training, and in September 2020, I will start the Couple and Family Therapy program at McGill University while also continuing my research on the side. I believe that this program will be the perfect opportunity for me to apply my knowledge of nonverbal communication to clinical settings.
Becoming a therapist to help people as I can and coming full circle by returning back to my clinical roots feels like the perfect fit for me at this stage of my career, and I am exceptionally thrilled about this upcoming opportunity!
Do you have anything that you'll remember about your time at McGill? My first year at McGill was the first time for many things: my first postdoctoral appointment, my first independent research grant, and my first year in Montreal. I will always remember these things. I could also never forget the friends I met here, with whom I plan to spend many more years to come. And how could I not mention the slippery ice to get up to the Stewart Bio hill!
Do you have any advice for younger students in the Psychology Department? Maintain a learning attitude and embrace the challenge. Don't be scared of the unknowns of the future and be flexible enough to follow your own way step after step.
How can people contact you? You can reach me at francesca.capozzi [at] mail.mcgill.ca, but please feel free to visit my website if you’d like to learn more about me and my work: https://francescacapozzi.wordpress.com/.