At the border between Psychology and Biology -Dr Orsola Rosa-Salva

  • Name: Dr Orsola Rosa-Salva, PhD
  • Location: CIMeC, University of Trento
  • Publications

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

I am an assistant professor at the Center for Mind and Brain Science of the University of Trento, in the north of Italy. I am a psychologist by training, but I am actually working at the border between Psychology and Biology, focusing on comparative animal cognition. I did most of my training using behavioral methods in the domestic chick, which is the main animal model I employ.

During my postdoc years, I also learned some neuroanatomy/neurophysiology, but my main area of expertise is the study of behavior and cognition. Topic-wise, I focus mostly on animals; very early social cognitive mechanisms, which can influence their subsequent social and cognitive development. In domestic chicks, you can control their experience and compare how inexperienced animals respond to different types of social stimulation or how specific, artificially controlled, social experiences may influence cognitive and social development.

What’s your backstory and how did you get your current position?

Mostly by chance. I was interested in both psychology and biology, and I couldn’t decide which to study. I then found a Bachelor’s and a Master’s track at the University of Padova centered on psycho-biology, the connection between mind and brain (the University of Padova is a huge center for research in psychology in Italy). I started this track specializing in these two domains. During my bachelor, Professor Lucia Regolin taught us psychobiology, introducing us to the whole spectrum of methods available in neurosciences. I went and asked her to do my thesis in her lab. At that point, I had no idea what she was actually doing in her research because she thought us about such a wide spectrum of methods, but I thought she would be working with some of the neurobiological methods covered in her course. It turned out that she was running experiments on chick behavior. However, I liked her and her style of teaching and research very much. So I decided that, even though her work was not really about studying the brain, for now, I would embrace it. From there I started to get more and more interested in this field of research, due to the advantages of domestic chicks as animal models and the kind of research questions they allow us to ask. At the end of my Ph.D. track, I moved from the University of Padova to be a post-doc at the University of Trento, where I could do also studies on neuroanatomy and neural activation in chicks, in collaboration with other experts.

Do you still work with chicks yourself or are you working with different animal models?

Mostly, I still work with young domestic chicks and occasionally with human infants, which I find very interesting to study from a comparative perspective to chicks. However, I have fruitful collaborations with people working with fish species. Once, I even did a study with lambs, which is not the easiest animal model to work with.

Can you describe the process of how you began the project? How do you learn from it and what keeps you going forward?

The development of a project is very often constrained by the funding agency providing the money. If the money is coming from a specific grant, the topic of the grant of course determines the direction of the project. Moreover, since I am not the head of a lab, I am not in a position to decide the direction of my research with complete independence. Right now, I am paid on funds from a grant obtained by the head of our lab. The topic of this grant is numerical cognition in domestic chicks, which we study at a behavioral and neurobiological level, focusing on the presence and origins of lateralization effects in this domain. Despite these constraints, I try to incorporate part of my own identity and research profile into this new project. For instance, lateralization has always been a part of my interests because it is a way to study how the development of an animal is influenced by both environmental and genetic components.

How do you describe the process of creating and learning on the project?

I always start by screening the literature to see what has or hasn’t been done already. Then, based on what you have read, you must think about your experimental design and discuss it with your colleagues. This is always useful because they may already see any pitfalls in your plan beforehand. They may act like the devil’s advocate. You then have to obtain ethical permission to run the study (when you work with animals, you need to obtain permission to run the study from the local authorities). From that point onward, in my experience, it is rare that everything goes how it is supposed to. Usually, you end up making many adjustments to the project on the run: so, you have a plan in your mind, and you design a series of 10 experiments: if the first experiment works then the second experiment will be a control for the first and so on. However, often the first experiment simply doesn’t work, and then you have to rethink various aspects of your protocol. In my experience, even though you should always be driven by a specific hypothesis, you also have to be flexible. You need to see what the data actually shows you, and then you have to make adjustments, within the limitations of the experiments you have been authorized to run.

And how is everything going at the moment and what are your plans for the future with this project?

Currently, the main project I am working on is the numerical cognition project I mentioned before. I am also continuing with some of my previous research lines in my spare time. I am able to do that thanks to a network of ongoing collaborations with other researchers, within and outside my institution. E.g., in one of these collaborative projects studying how naïve chicks recognize animate agents and their social interaction, based on the way they move. However, as I said, I am devoting most of my time to studying various aspects of numerical cognition and lateralization in chicks. Right now, I am supervising a graduate student who is trying to understand how abstract the representation of numbers in the chick brain is. For instance, this can be done by investigating whether they can transfer numerical information from one sensory modality to another (e.g., from the auditory to the visual modality). What are my hopes for this project? We are at the beginning of this line of research, so, it is a bit early to know how much we will be able to achieve. It took us a lot of time to plan this project, and then to obtain the ethical approval for being able to run the studies. It is too early to see the bigger picture yet. However, luckily I am also collaborating with a few other researchers hired on the same grants, together with whom I have already been able to successfully explore the lateralization effects associated with this topic.

Have you learned anything particularly helpful or
advantageous through your scientific career that you think would be useful to help you?

First, try always to replicate experiments. It always helps. Especially, if you find results that you were not expecting, try to run some sort of replica of the experiment to be sure your effect is really there. I know that many people like the debate on this, but I believe that the simple internal replication of your data is the best way to know that your data is actually solid, and then you can build it into it with your control experiments and so on.

For people in the younger academic stages, I would recommend that they try to write their own grant applications as soon as possible. When you’re a Ph.D. student and somebody offers you a longer contract, like 5 or 6 years of postdoc, you normally say “hurray, I have a job for 5-6 years!”. However, this may not be as advantageous as it sounds. Most of the grants a young researcher can hope to obtain have strict limitations based on the academic age. This means that they accept applications only from people who obtained their Ph.D. no more than, for instance, 4 years before. If you wait too long, you will have fewer grants left to which you can apply, except the very competitive ones that are open also to senior scientists. For young scholars, it is crucial to prove their ability to secure funding under their own name (i.e., not under the name of their advisor). You should be aware of how the system works in the country where you want to live. Be aware of the limitations that funding bodies implement to restrict the number of applicants. So, from the very beginning, you should ask yourself: after you finish your postdoc position, what comes next?

What is your morning routine? How do you wake up in the morning?

There are two ways how I wake up in the morning. Either the alarm clock rings or my son wakes me up, though hopefully not much earlier than the alarm clock would have done. We then get ready as a family (my husband also works in the same institution) and then we bring our son to kindergarten before going to work.

What does a typical day look like at work for you?

Before I was a mother, I didn’t have much of a schedule. I could work late in the night one day and then I could work on the weekend. Since then, I became a mother and therefore dependent on kindergartens and babysitters, so I tend to work normal office hours, which is basically from 9 am to 5 pm. Some days I have additional help, which can be useful because sometimes I want to stay late in the office. Because of events like children getting sick and kindergarten closing due to COVID-19, my work schedule and efficiency goes away completely. Over the years I’ve become less involved in first-hand lab work. A lot of my time is either teaching younger researchers or guiding their work, writing papers, grant applications, and lots of bureaucracy. It doesn’t mean that I don’t step into the lab anymore, but I have definitely less time to do that.

And what sort of tools do you use in your professional life?

If I need to discuss something with colleagues or collaborators whom I can’t meet in person, I can use Zoom or Skype, etc. There are lots of video conferencing apps. Typically, in my institution, we use Zoom for institutional purposes. Then of course there are plenty of tools, each specific for a task: anything from microscope software to count activated brain cells, to apparatuses and software for the automated tracking of animal movements.

What do you use for data analysis and things like that?

I’m mostly an SPSS user. I’m trying to learn R because I believe is a more flexible tool and it allows you to conduct more kinds of statistical analyses. However, unfortunately, the more you progress in your career, the less time you have to learn new things because you need to do more writing (grant proposals, papers, etc) and manage the bureaucracy of the job. So, I think it was easier to make the time to learn this sort of stuff when in the earlier stages of your career.

Do you like to read the news? Do you stay up to date on the news?

As for scientific publications, I don’t systematically read any particular journal, but I read summaries and if I see one article that is relevant to my research, I download it and read it. Often, a colleague at work would forward me something relevant. Being a reviewer too is a way to be in touch with the literature. I often get asked to review papers that would be in any case of interest to me because they’re within my areas of expertise. Of course, I read more literature during the initial phase of devising a project and when I write up the results in the end. For the normal (non-science related) news, I normally scroll Twitter or Google news once a day to see whether another war exploded somewhere or to just know a little bit about what is happening in the world.

What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?

I take care of my child. He’s four and takes much of my time. As much as possible, I try to combine childcare with meeting friends, who often also have children and/or gravitate around the university. I’m a sociable person and I like to meet up with people and talk to them as a way to wind down. However, I try not to talk about work after work hours. Overall, I would say my number one coping mechanism is small talk and befriending people. On the weekends I also try to visit my family of origin, I want my son to have a strong connection with them growing up and my school friends.

Do you have any other advice for scientists starting out? Anything else to end on? Any thoughts you have that you would like to

There is something that I tell my students if they are considering having an academic job. I tell them, to think about what they want in terms of family life too. For example, do they want to stay close to their place of origin? Do they have a strong relationship with their family of origin, which is very common in Italy? How crucial is it for them to be able to build a family early in life (or at all)? It can be difficult to combine a research career with a family. For young researchers, it is very common to have to relocate to other cities/countries multiple times, which can be difficult if you have a partner and kids. So, I want my students to be aware of the fun aspects of the job such as learning new things, going to conferences, and traveling. But I also want them to think about what they want for their personal life.

Dr Orsola Rosa-Salva presenting her work