Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience PhD candidate Sivaniya Subramaniapillai talks to In The Spotlight about her work on brain-aging trajectories of women & men throughout the adult lifespan and the different possible routes to healthy aging.
Research Area: Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience
Faculty Supervisor: Dr. M. Natasha Rajah
Tell us a bit about yourself: I was born in Sri Lanka, but my family immigrated to Canada when I was young due to the civil war. I completed my undergraduate training at the University of Toronto, where I specialized in Neuroscience with minors in Psychology and Physiology. My pursuit of higher education stems from my gratitude for the sacrifices my parents made for me so that I can benefit from the opportunities afforded in Canada. Their encouragement helped me realize my own love for knowledge, even at the consequence of other practical skill sets, such as cooking!
I’m deeply motivated to make the most of my opportunities, which includes my choice to follow the great research possibilities at McGill. I got into psychology because it’s fascinating to investigate the relationship between the brain and mind, and to think about individual differences that affect our cognition, such as how we remember personal events. Our memory can be shaped by something as broad as our culture or as immediate as the stress we’re feeling in a particular moment. Understanding these lifestyle and individual differences are important when we consider processes that affect us all, such as memory and aging.
Tell us about your research in three sentences or less: My research aims to characterize brain-aging trajectories of women and men throughout the adult lifespan, and the factors that differentiate typical aging trajectories from atypical cases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. There are many different possible routes to healthy aging, which could be reflected by different pathways. Understanding individual differences, whether it be sex/gender or lifestyle factors such as physical exercise or social engagement, will inform interventions that preserve cognitive functions like memory throughout the aging process.
What excites you most about your research? Thinking about the ‘why’ of a problem excites me most about research. For example, we know that women represent two-thirds of the cases of late-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Exploring why there is a greater prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease in women requires a deep dive into the research field. This process is not only informative, but also humbling because it reminds me of how limited my understanding is on other topics outside the scope of my research. Understanding that there are potentially multiple different factors that may explain a particular observation makes me appreciate how complicated the world is. Often the first explanation we attribute to observations may not necessarily be a consequence of the very first explanation that comes to mind.
It also excites me to understand the nuance behind research findings – when we see an effect, could that be explained by other factors? And could we account for those factors through our research design or methods? Thinking deeply about our interpretations of the world reminds me of what David Foster Wallace spoke about at the 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:
“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.”
What inspired me about his speech was that it’s important to think about these different possibilities, not only when interpreting research findings but also our personal experiences.
Is there any recent or upcoming work you’d like to tell us about? I have a paper that is fresh off the press at Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, an exciting collaboration between the Rajah lab and the Einstein lab at the University of Toronto. Together, we conducted a review of the literature to determine what is known about sex and gender differences in lifestyle and demographic factors and how these factors might protect against Alzheimer’s Disease. Some of these factors include education, occupation, physical activity, and social support. Since we know that there is a higher prevalence of Alzheimer’s in women, we wanted to investigate whether these factors may differentially protect women and men against AD. Out of the 876 articles that we found, only 16 looked at sex and gender differences – that’s only about 2% of articles that made the cut! Even within this small number, we found some evidence suggesting that these protective factors benefit women and men equally, and in some cases, women benefit more from these factors in lowering AD risk.
What was fascinating to think about was the gendered contribution of many of these factors. For example, gendered social roles and access to opportunities such as education and occupation may contribute to AD susceptibility differently. In the studies we reviewed, women were, on average, found to have lower education levels than men. When we thought about why this was the case, we came to realize that most of the studies were conducted in the early- to mid-1900s, which included generations in which men had higher education than women. But, despite womens’ lower education levels, we still found a beneficial effect of education in protecting against AD, highlighting that education is protective, even in ‘small’ amounts! Hopefully, the next aging generation will be protected with societies modernizing and there being greater access to these factors!
More recently, I’ve also been motivated to apply what I learned through our review and more broadly what is known in the literature about the importance of social connection in healthy living in a more impactful and accessible way. So I was inspired to develop a program, called the Wisdom Exchange Project, that connects graduate students and postdoctoral fellows with older adults in the community to develop meaningful ‘COVID19-proof’ friendships. I’ve teamed up with a wonderful group of graduate students in Quebec and Ontario, Danielle D’Amico from Ryerson University and Lauren Bechard and Emma Conway from the University of Waterloo, to make this social connection initiative happen. This project is timely because social isolation across all ages is a major public health concern that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Through the Wisdom Exchange Project, we also aim to have seminars on the topic of healthy living and aging by researchers in the field to provide an opportunity to exchange knowledge with the community. I’ve written about the project at the Quebec Bio-Imaging Network blog, and if anyone is interested in getting involved, feel free to complete our volunteer questionnaire form or reach us at wisdom.exchange.project [at] gmail.com.
What's your favourite thing to do outside of your research? I love to take long walks with friends, and hike when I get the chance. Since moving to Montreal and particularly with the onset of COVID-19, I’ve been able to develop my interests in cooking!
Do you have any advice for younger students in the Psychology Department? Going into graduate school, I didn’t understand or appreciate how many drafts go into writing a paper. I was deeply frustrated by my own failures in writing and more broadly, communicating science to different audiences. Don’t be so hard on yourself when it comes to writing, especially if English is not your native language, and be more forgiving of the process. I am very grateful to my graduate supervisors, Drs. Natasha Rajah and Debra Titone, for their patience in helping me to improve my writing. I would say my writing skills are still a working progress, which includes consuming knowledge seminars and articles on effective science communication. I never thought I would say this, but now I get excited when a draft is returned riddled with highlights, edits, and comments!
How can people contact you? You can find me on twitter at @SivaniyaSubram or reach me over email at sivaniya.subramaniapillai [at] mail.mcgill.ca.