Doing Research in a Pandemic, an Interview with Professor Yael Niv

For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Ryan shares her interview.

Professor Niv at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute.

For this seasonal series, I decided to interview Yael Niv, a Professor in Neuroscience and Psychology at Princeton University. Professor Niv has conducted key research on reinforcement learning and decision-making and she continues to contribute to this field at her lab at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. I decided to interview Professor Niv because I have taken two courses with her (FRS172: Our Subjective Reality and PSY338: From Animal Learning to Changing Minds) and have truly been inspired by the work she has done and the positive attitude that she brings to the classroom every day. I know that we can all learn from Professor Niv, especially at a time like right now. In our interview, we discuss the importance of hallway encounters, research opportunities during the pandemic, and the future of her lab.

Ryan Champeau: First, we would love to hear a little bit about your background.

Yael Niv: I’m a computational cognitive neuroscientist, so I use computational models to study learning and decision-making in humans and animals. We primarily use behavioral and fMRI experiments, as well as a lot of computational models.

R: What kind of research were you conducting before COVID-19 began?

Y: We began a lot of different projects, but luckily they are run on online platforms. We run behavioral studies on humans and they are able to complete them at home. However, we were planning three fMRI experiments when COVID hit with three or four students who were going to graduate from the lab. So, this was going to be kind of a capstone on their experience as they were about to graduate and obtain their Ph.D. thesis.

R: Were you able to complete the fMRI? And how did COVID-19 impact your lab and research more generally?

Y: Luckily, because a lot of our work is either theoretical like modeling, all we need is a computer and we can do it at home. We can also conduct online experiments, so none of that had to end. But we did have to stop our fMRI experiments and one other big change for me was the group dynamic. There is something special about working together as a group in a room with a whiteboard. And because that ended, our thought processes had to change.

R: How else did your thought process change because of the pandemic?

Y: It is really hard to quantify, but people in my lab have been saying that they really miss having random hallway encounters, where you run into people and you can get something off your mind, run a question by them, and hear about their ideas. Then, they answer and you can get coffee together and really help each other out. And so now, of course, you can jump on a Zoom with someone, but then you need to send them an email and say can you jump on it without that spontaneity of sharing ideas. Also, we moved all of our talks, seminars, and lab meetings online. So, we still have the content of those, but we also realized that a lot of good ideas come from walking outside together and just listening to others. As a solution, in one of our seminars, we started a virtual coffee meetup when the seminar ends. We first take a five minute break so people can go make their tea and coffee. Then, we just chat, and sometimes it’s more fun than the seminar itself because we get more ideas out of it. 

R: Are there any other ways in which you have been coping with the pandemic?

Y: Well, first we lowered our standards. And then people automatically, after a while, made those standards high again. I think that everybody is feeling that the semester is the hardest, even in comparison to the beginning of the pandemic because now people are like “okay, we know that we can do this, so let’s just do our normal stuff”. But actually, no. We’re still in a pandemic. We still can’t do our normal stuff. We’re still missing the hallway conversation. We’re still missing the social part of work.

We’re still in a pandemic. We still can’t do our normal stuff. We’re still missing the hallway conversation. We’re still missing the social part of work.

Y: So we’ve been trying to go on some hikes together as a lab. On weekends, and once during the week, I say “let’s take a day off and go walking in the woods”. So, we’ve tried to meet up face to face a little bit. We also have made a channel that’s called “Help Desk” where you can share bugs and ask for help. This sort of functions as our hallway conversation because there’s a fast turnaround. 

R:  Do you think that your lab will return to normal anytime soon? And how do you see psychology and neuroscience research changing?

Y: My lab can return to normal. People really want to go back to working in the office. Everyone wants it. But, it’s actually quite convenient that people, you know, can wear their slippers all day and not have to commute. So I think that there were definitely some advantages to the virtual environment and the whole world agrees that we’re not going to return to exactly what we did before because now we know what things don’t need to be in person. And in regards to your research question, I think a lot more people have, because of necessity, moved to doing experiments online. That has actually opened up a lot of opportunities for people in my lab. In general, more and more people have learned to run online experiments, and that can make a big difference in psychology research, because you can get large populations very easily. 

R: Do you have any advice for students who are looking to conduct research?

Y: I think they should try to! Labs have been doing research, so students can try to apply for labs. Because of COVID-19, it isn’t going to be 100% open and it also may not be easy to get a research position , but I don’t think it’s impossible. Also, like I said before, some things are possible that weren’t possible before, like doing research in a remote lab without moving there. So, in some ways, there are more research opportunities than there were before.

My conversation with Professor Niv made me realize how much I also miss “hallway conversations” and spontaneously sharing ideas. However, I hope that our interview shows that despite these pressing times, there are still research opportunities and you can still make the most of them. You can also take a hike, have a coffee chat, or even just hop on a zoom call after a meeting to stay engaged and improve your well-being. Most importantly, though, you shouldn’t be afraid to take a break and focus on yourself because like Professor Niv wisely said, we are still in a pandemic.

– Ryan Champeau, Social Sciences Correspondent