5 Questions with Dr. Claudia Gonzalez

Dr. Claudia Gonzalez (MSc '00, PhD '04) is a Canada Research Chair in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. Born and raised in Mexico, she earned her bachelor's degree in psychology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico before continuing her education at the University of Lethbridge where she earned both her master's and PhD degrees in neuroscience. She has taught and researched at the U of L since August 2009, and is funded by the University, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

What first piqued your interest in your research discipline?

Ever since I can remember, I was interested in science. I was, and still am, fascinated by animal behaviour, particularly human. In middle school, I remember spending hours simply watching people. Later on it became a habit to observe people's actions and to wonder what led those people to act in a certain way. I decided to take psychology in university and it became clear that if I wanted to understand behaviour I had to first understand the brain. I pursued a career in neuroscience and I continue to be baffled by how the brain – a mere three pounds of mush – determines the complexity of our thoughts and actions. My research looks at multi-sensory integration like eye-hand coordination and sensory and cognitive interactions such as visuospatial abilities.

Claudia Gonzalez
Dr. Claudia Gonzalez looks to unlock the mysteries of how the brain controls movement.

How is your research applicable in "the real world"?

I often tell my students that I do science for the love of science. My research is motivated by the big question of how the brain works to produce behaviour. In the lab we ask questions such as how does the brain compute the location, size and orientation of an object so that every morning you can pick up your cup of coffee with remarkable ease. We use cutting-edge technology that allows us to break down a hand or an eye movement into hundreds of components so that we can take a really good look at how it is executed. In addition, we look at how these visuomotor interactions are modulated or affected by cognitive functions such as attention and spatial abilities. We are starting to conduct research in neurological populations (i.e.: stroke patients) hoping to gain some further insight into the neural mechanisms underlying visuomotor and visuospatial functions. At the end of the day we hope to understand how the brain integrates sensory, motor and cognitive information. With this knowledge we can begin to develop strategies that translate into better outcomes for patients suffering from neurological conditions.

What is the greatest honour you have received in your career?

I guess that was when I overheard one of my supervisors say: "she will do fine" when discussing my future in science. Really, as a scientist I am very proud when my work is published, cited or funded. Also, it is always a pleasure and an honour to receive inquires from students who want to know about the work that I do and whether they can volunteer or work in my lab.

How important are students to your research endeavours?

Students are the heart and soul of my research program. Students' curiosity and excitement about learning and discovery is the best motivating force in the lab. Students don't only carry out the experiments but they help in the design and interpretation of them. It is often in the latter that students' contributions are invaluable; they bring a fresh and unbiased perspective to science and research.

If you had unlimited funds, which areas of research would you invest?

Two: Early education and translation. "Scientia potentia est" which commonly translates from the Latin as "knowledge is power". So I would invest in teaching children from an early age about their brain and how to take care of it. I think that if children learned some general principles of brain function early in their life, they would be less likely to engage in activities that would endanger their brains such as drug use, or checking from behind in a hockey game.

With respect to translation, I recently spoke to a medical doctor from a different country who told me that she goes to international conferences and brings back with her what she has learned to apply it directly into her patient population. Her story got me thinking that perhaps we don't do enough of that. As a basic scientist I would like to see that more of our findings could be put into practice, which is ultimately where it matters most.

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This story first appeared in the November 2012 issue of the Legend. To view the full issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.