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PEN Students Gain Cognitive Neuroscience Training at University of Hong Kong

In June and July 2015, Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) students Geo Kartheiser and Adam Stone conducted their summer cognitive neuroscience laboratory rotations at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). These rotations, an integral part of the PEN doctoral program, were funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) supplemental award, written by Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto (Co-Principal Investigator/Science Director), from the Science of Learning Centers Program (Dr. Soo-Siang Lim, NSF Program Director and Chair of Coordinating Committee) and the Office of International Science and Engineering (Dr. Akaysha C. Tang, East Asia & Pacific Program Director) as part of efforts to promote HKU’s Science of Learning initiatives and advance USA priority efforts in promoting international scientific and collaborative exchanges.

Kartheiser completed his rotation at Professor Tatia Lee’s Laboratory of Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience at HKU. In Lee’s laboratory, Kartheiser received functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fMRI) training and gained advanced knowledge in core issues in differential patterns of functional brain plasticity during focused attention and mental imagery, particularly in Chinese individuals. He also presented to Lee’s laboratory on his own work regarding the neural plasticity of spatial working memory in signed language processing. As a part of the rotation, Kartheiser also engaged in intellectual discussions with members of Lee’s team on the structural and functional plasticity of the human brain as a result of meditation and mindfulness.

Stone, placed in the laboratory of Dr. I-Fan Su, gained training in EEG and ERP principles and data analysis as used in reading and psycholinguistic studies, and observed data collection procedures. He also participated in stimulating scientific discussions and exchanges with Su’s team, covering a wide range of topics such as the basics of Chinese writing (including sublexical reading processes), dyslexic Chinese readers, phonological awareness, Persian orthography, and visual sign phonology, and how deaf readers use visual cues, as opposed to sound cues, as a robust route for reading.

Jointly, Kartheiser and Stone worked to advance their fNIRS experimental designs and research data analyses, and with Petitto and Professor Kevin Dunbar, visiting research professor at HKU from the University of Maryland, mentor HKU neuroscientists in constructing and conducting fNIRS pilot studies in the brand-new HKU Science of Learning Lab. Also, as part of the Science of Learning Strategic Research Team’s annual SummerFest, Stone and Kartheiser participated in several all-day workshops covering Matlab, EEGLab, E-Prime, R, and SPM, and attended an education and neuroscience symposia, including one focusing on “Literacy and the Brain.”

Kartheiser and Stone managed to squeeze in some sightseeing along with HKU’s scientific and training activities. Both, with interpreters Nicole Cartagna and Erin Spurgeon, visited some of Hong Kong’s famous landmarks, such as the “Big Buddha” at Lantau Island and the world-famous Hong Kong skyline. They also visited a sign-bilingual co-enrollment kindergarten program with deaf and hearing children, organized by Dr. Gladys Tang, director of the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre of Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies. Both also visited HKU’s famous lily pond with Professor Nancy Law, co-convenor and corresponding officer of the Science of Learning Strategic Research Team.

Advancing fNIRS Science in Hong Kong
Petitto has been instrumental in supporting the HKU’s efforts to create a Science of Learning Center, to design and build an advanced neuroimaging and behavioral experimental new HKU laboratory in the Science of Learning/Educational Neuroscience, and for advancing USA national priority efforts in promoting international collaborative scientific exchanges between the United States and China.

The workshop, attended by approximately 30 HKU faculty members and graduate students focused on one of the world’s most advanced neuroimaging technologies for the study of human higher cognition, fNIRS, a neuroimaging technology that is especially optimal for the study of learning in babies, children, and adults across a wide variety of learning and social contexts (both in and out of the formal laboratory).

On the first day, the workshop began with a brief comparative review of contemporary neuroimaging technologies, the neurophysiological principles of measurement on which each neuroimaging technology operates, and the powerful relationship between the different types of neuroimaging systems and the range of questions that they can – and cannot – answer. Participants learned about fNIRS brain imaging principles, contemporary investigations using fNIRS, experimental design (block vs. event), and exciting new advances that involve fNIRS experimental designs that are yoked to other technologies (e.g., eye-tracking, thermal infrared imaging, etc.), fNIRS neuroimaging data analyses, and techniques and their relation to the world’s other neuroimaging analysis packages, and the ethical recruitment and treatment of participants and data in brain studies.

On the following day, workshop participants enjoyed a unique immersive hands-on introduction to the components of a real Hitachi ETG-4000 fNIRS neuroimaging system, and they observed a brief fNIRS adult study. The day included detailed information on the preparation of an fNIRS neuroimaging experiment (including room preparation), methods for digital spatial and channel localization, data exporting and post-processing, and safety and care of ETG-4000 technology. The workshop also included a hands-on activity where participants divided into groups based on their research interests to develop fNIRS studies. In this activity, participants identified specific overarching scientific questions and listed corresponding hypotheses, behavioral predictions, and neuroanatomical predictions. The groups then presented to each other about (1) how the neuroimaging study design would permit us to gain a type of understanding that wouldn’t be possible from analyzing behavioral data alone, (2) what type of discoveries may be yielded from the use of fNIRS that wouldn’t be possible from other technologies, and (3) how the discoveries may inform and advance science and society.

Visual Sign Phonology and Reading Public Lecture in Hong Kong  
On July 11, 2015, Petitto, along with Stone and Kartheiser, delivered a public lecture at HKU, titled “Science of Learning Discoveries about the Role of Visual Sign Phonology and Reading: Revolutionary Implications for Young Visual Learners.” Specifically, they sought to answer the following: Decades of research have identified that the capacity to segment the speech stream, called “phonological awareness,” is crucial for acquiring successful reading skills in the very young emergent hearing reader. What happens in the case of deaf children without access to sound?

Petitto, in her capacity as the Sin Wai-Kin Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, covered decades of research on how the brains of profoundly deaf people extract visual sign phonetic-syllabic units from the visual linguistic stream around them, produce these units in infancy, and create a homologous “phonological” level of language organization in the absence of sound (c.f., Petitto & Marentette 1991; Petitto et al., 2001, 2004; Petitto 2009; Jasinska & Petitto, 2013, 2014) en route to becoming successful readers.

Stone and Kartheiser, as Ph.D. students in Educational Neuroscience and recipients of a USA NSF supplemental award (written by Petitto) from the Science of Learning Centers Program (Dr. Soo-Siang Lim, NSF Program Director and Chair of Coordinating Committee) and the Office of International Science and Engineering (Dr. Akaysha C. Tang, East Asia & Pacific Program Director), then shared research coming from the NSF Science of Learning Center, Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2), on how early sign language-exposed children build upon their visual sign phonology to create connections among orthographic, semantic, and phonological representations, critical for the development of skilled reading, in precisely the same manner as hearing children with sound phonology.

Jointly, the three of them, with Law as a moderator in a Q&A following the lecture, discussed the implications of these findings for the Science of Learning, and how it contributes new knowledge about the role of phonology and its associated neural sites and systems in all human language and reading acquisition. The lecture was followed by a tea and coffee reception in HKU’s lovely Rayson Huang Theatre, constituting a major milestone in Petitto’s distinguished professorship at HKU, and Stone and Kartheiser’s support of HKU’s initiatives in creating a center and culture of the “Science of Learning.”

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant. No. 1041725. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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