07 October. 2020
Dr. Marios Avraamides
In conversation with RISE
Marios Avraamides is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Cyprus where he teaches courses on Cognitive and Experimental Psychology, Memory, Attention, and Perception. Here at RISE, he is the Pillar Leader of Human Factors and Design and the Group leader of the Cognitive and Clinical Applications multidisciplinary research group. .
He has previously obtained a BA in Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and an MSc and a PhD degree in Cognitive/Experimental Psychology from the Pennsylvania State University. Prior to returning to Cyprus, he has worked as a postdoctoral scientist at the University of California Santa Barbara (USA) and at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biological Cybernetics (Germany). His research interests lie within the field of spatial cognition and include among others spatial memory, navigation, and perspective-taking.
His research has been funded by multiple research grants, including a prestigious starting grant from the European Research Council (ERC). He has participated in various international panels, including the ISCH domain of the European COST framework and the SH4 panel of the ERC competition.
In his interview he talked about his current research, as well as how the COVID-19 pandemic affected his work, and gave us a chance to get to know him a little better!
Great to speak to you, Marie! First, we’d love to hear more about your work at RISE...
· What is it about your field of research that motivates you the most?
Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the workings of the human mind. I just find it so astonishing that a machine such as the brain is capable of making us experience so many different things at any given point in time, ranging from remembering with fondness episodes from our childhood to feeling attracted towards others. For this reason, I’ve been drawn towards the study of human cognition. In other words, I’ve been studying what gives rise to the way we think. For many years my research has focused on memory, and more so, on spatial memory. That is, I’ve been studying how people encode, maintain, and use information in memory about the environment. This is the information we use when we find our way in an unfamiliar city or when we try to find a shortcut to a destination. Knowing how the human mind and brain process spatial information can have important practical applications. For example, it can be used to improve city planning or to build more efficient navigation devices for the blind.
· What makes the current research group you are leading special for you?
My research on spatial cognition at the University of Cyprus has used a variety of technologies, including immersive Virtual Reality for advance visualization and interaction with realistic simulated environments and psychophysiology/electrophysiology for collecting behavioral and neural data. At RISE, I have been using these and other methods to study topics that related to Cognition and Neuroscience, but which go beyond spatial cognition. More importantly, the Cognitive and Clinical Applications research group that I have established at RISE, has been focusing on topics that can have more direct impact to society and can more easily lead to commercial products. For example, one of our current funded projects (TONE
) focuses on developing and testing a Mixed Reality application that can help musicians overcome acute and chronic pain by improving their postures while playing their instrument. Using different sensors, this app collects in real time data about the posture and muscle activity of the musician and provides feedback to the musician to adjust her playing habits. Another ongoing project in which my group is involved, focuses on developing Virtual and Augmented Reality tasks that can be used, as part of a larger effort that includes several academic and industry partners, to create and sustain a local market for Astrotourism
. Overall, I’m excited by the fact that at RISE I can work on projects whose aim is to develop solutions for real-world problems. Through RISE, I also got a chance to collaborate with scientists with very diverse backgrounds and expertise. This has led me to exciting new projects -- such as the two described above -- that I never thought I could be interested in (or have useful things to contribute to). So now, I can tell you how to properly sit when you play the violin and that the stars of the Summer Triangle are called Vega, Altair, and Daneb. But I’m afraid the sharing of this newfound knowledge had made me even more annoying to hang out with, No?
· What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
Hmm….this a difficult question! I have learned so many lessons that I wonder if I have ever done anything right the first time around! Ok, if I have to choose something then, it’s these two: 1) Never say never. Many times in my career I have said that I will not use a certain method or technology, only to come back later and use it. One example that comes to mind is when I was yelling at the faculty meeting of my department against having a class on Structural Equation Modelling, arguing that it’s not useful for most of the students and that my lab will never use it. Well, I haven’t used it yet but I’m very close! 2) You never know where life, academic or personal, will take you. Although this was the cause of enormous stress for me at the beginning (see the Psoriasis on my arms?), I have learned over the years to relax and enjoy the ride. Whatever comes, good or bad, I now know that I can deal with it.
· How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted your work?
Well, to look at the bright side of things, it has taught me several skills. I’ve never used Zoom or Teams before in my life (I didn’t even know they existed before COVID-19) and here I am now using both to teach and to coordinate with my researchers. But the COVID-19 has put some things into perspective and has changed some aspects of our work focus. For example, prior to COVID-19 my research group was more focused on developing high-end applications that used the best possible hardware and software. During the COVID-19 lockdown, however, we realized that we should also build versions of our applications that run on portable and affordable hardware, and which individuals can easily use at home.
· Outside of your research and any related work, what do you enjoy doing most?
I think the key is to work (as much as it is possible) on things that you enjoy the most. That way, work is no longer work and it becomes a pleasure. I try to do this, although admin duties and meetings often come in the way. Still, I get a lot of pleasure out of my “work”. Even though I do have hobbies outside “work”, I often manage to see the science in them and start doing some “work” related to them. One notable recent example if football. I have always been a football fan (those who know me, definitely know about my passionate addiction to the Digenis Akritas Morfou club) but lately I started thinking about the role of cognitive processes, such as attention and perception, for performance on the pitch. That led to forming a start-up company with other like-minded friends, to study the cognitive and neural underpinnings of sports performance and develop innovating assessment and training tools. I still consider football a hobby but it’s now one that produces research publications (and hopefully soon commercial products as well). I also enjoy going out for drinks with friends. Although some would say that this steers my path towards alcoholism, thankfully the rise of craft beer and gin, makes drinking feel more like a sophisticated hobby. Plus, going out for drinks often yields to discussions and ideas for research so maybe I should even call it “work”.
· What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
I don’t know. Next question please? Seriously, I don’t know. That said, I’ve always been curious about how various things got started in the history of time. Like for example, who established the first restaurant and how did this happen exactly? Was someone cooking for others and at some point decided to start charging them? What tipped him/her off? Or, how did someone think about wrapping ground pork into caul fat and grilling it on the charcoal to produce one of the finest Cypriot discoveries, the shieftalia? And now that I’ve thought about it, maybe fire is the greatest discovery of all time? I don’t know if it’s scientific enough though. Maybe Penicillin then?