Sometimes clues to solving complex problems are found in unexpected places – like at an afternoon coffee break with colleagues who are specialists in a range of disciplines.
That’s the thinking behind Coffee Time, a weekday event that fosters a collaborative environment for researchers and students at the Centre for Advanced Research in Experimental and Applied Linguistics (ARiEAL), an interdisciplinary research centre housed within the Department of Linguistics and Languages, Faculty of Humanities at McMaster University.
“In recent years, demands on everyone’s time has skyrocketed, so this is an opportunity where people can combine a break with what amounts to real conversations about work,” says John Connolly, the Senator William McMaster Chair of Cognitive Neuroscience, a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Languages and director of ARiEAL.
The research centre is an example of McMaster’s support for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) education and showcases a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving.
Prof. Connolly cites the example of two graduate students (Rober Boshra and Gaisha Oralova): one, who was doing a PhD in biomedical engineering, was chatting with another student who was working on a cognitive science of language PhD that morphed into a collaboration that also included Prof. Connolly, another colleague, Dr. Victor Kuperman, and a postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Aki Kyröläinen, researching brain activity and eye movement activity while people read.
“This team, a ‘poster-child’ for the research centre’s approach to learning, includes an engineer, cognitive scientist, faculty members including a neuroscientist and a psycholinguist. ARiEAL has become a melting pot of ideas and methodologies,” he says.
In addition to its multi-disciplinary approach, the centre benefits from another layer of diversity – international perspectives from its students, researchers and faculty from more than 21 countries who work together to advance understanding of the neural, behavioural and social foundations of human communication.
“Just one example is a group of Iranian, Egyptian and Canadian students who are very skilled in analyses methods (machine learning) and bring that learning to the centre. Then we have formal ties to institutions in the U.S. and Finland and informal relationships with institutes in countries like Germany, Brazil and Cuba. Everyone represents a different way of thinking and brings a different perspective to McMaster,” says Prof. Connolly.
He adds that ARiEAL, a relatively new research facility (established in 2016), also recognizes the importance of generating funding from the commercialization of its research.
As an example of a practical application for research, Prof. Connelly says the standard method of evaluation for brain injuries relies on behavioural assessments, which can be incorrect up to 40 per cent of the time.
One of the paths to a more accurate diagnosis lies in analyzing brain signals. An algorithm developed by a McMaster Engineering PhD graduate that enabled faster analysis of brain signals recorded during an electroencephalograph (EEG) has reduced the time it takes to analyze the signal and thereby contribute to a diagnosis.
“We are developing a user interface with proprietary software and tests that will enable a more accurate diagnosis of the cognitive state of patients,” he says.
In addition to the clinical value of the centre’s research, Prof. Connolly sees commercialization as way to make ARiEAL financially self-sufficient.
Meanwhile, aware that sometimes the most innovative thinking comes when and where one least expects it, he encourages Coffee Time.
“Bring your own mug and remember someone has usually baked cookies,” he says, looking forward to research projects that may result from chance encounters over an afternoon cuppa joe.
To view entire report visit globeandmail.com