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Alex Kenaith, PhD

Join us in welcoming one of our newest faculty members, Dr. Alex Kenaith.

A. Kenaith and partner

Dr. Alex Kenaith is this month’s faculty spotlight!

[TT] Alex, thank you so much for agreeing to be our faculty spotlight for the month of March! This is also your birthday month, so what better way to celebrate you! I’d like to get started by asking about your educational trajectory and what led you to Psychology?

[AK] When I started as an undergraduate I was originally an engineering major, but over the course of the first two years I came to realize that I wasn’t enjoying that like I had hoped. After taking an introductory course I switched my major over to a philosophy. Going into my senior year I realized that, while I loved philosophy, I also really loved arguing from the basis of data and so I thought psychology might be a good marriage of these interests (and it was)! I received a lot of encouragement during my independent research over that year, and so from there I headed out to do a PhD in behavioral neuroscience. After that time I headed out for some post-doctoral research, and after that I arrived here [at UIC]!

[TT] So, would you mind sharing information about your research and how it has evolved?

[AK] My research investigates episodic memory – our ability to remember where, when, and what happened – at multiple levels of explanation. This can mean a lot of different things depending on the project, but often includes things like measuring neural activity and behavior as mice or humans explore interesting (sometimes virtual) environments, and/or building computational models of our findings. While this underlying interest has flowed through all of my work, the particulars of that work has definitely evolved over time. I began working with human memory behavior, EEG, and neural network modeling as an undergraduate. During this time I realized that I really enjoyed the insights that came from neural network models, and decided to focus on working with mice during the beginning of my PhD, as these data allowed us to model and test our hypotheses more directly than we could in humans. Later during that time, collaborators and I took the insights we had gathered from our mouse work and began to apply these to humans, using behavior, virtual navigation, fMRI, and eye tracking. During my postdoctoral research I returned to mouse work full time, focusing on learning a powerful new brain recording technique called calcium imaging, and leveraging a lot of the experimental design and analysis approaches I had learned from working with humans. Nowadays I’m designing research programs to marry these interests and capitalize on this diverse, comparative approach to understanding episodic memory and the neural circuits which instantiate it.

[TT] With all of this, what would you say has been a pivotal moment in your career?

[AK] Oh, picking just one would be a tough one. On positive notes, there have been a few! Impactful moments for me have been working with and learning from my close collaborator Josh Julian in grad school, especially on our early collaborative publications. Receiving my first fellowship as a postdoctoral researcher really made me feel like I was good at this in a way I hadn’t before, and becoming a Banting Fellow really solidified the confidence that I could have a future in science. Since the pandemic I also had the opportunity to give virtual talks at a bunch of wonderful places, including for a series called Innovators in Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth and affiliated universities which really jumpstarted my engagement with the field during a time where a lot of things were up in the air.

[TT] Are there any organizations or projects you have been affiliated with? If so, would you elaborate?

[AK] Yes! I’m affiliated with an organization called 500 Queer Scientists that is meant to promote the visibility of queer folks in STEM. As a queer trans woman who wishes that she had more visible role models in science especially when coming out, I’m definitely happy to put myself out there now.

[TT] This is more of a two-part question, what led you to UIC and what are you most looking forward to accomplishing?

[AK] A lot of things! When initially applying, there were a lot of things pushing me toward UIC: the research, the community-oriented approach to higher education (especially as a first-generation college-goer myself), and even the city itself. But after going through the interview process and some in-person meetings, I have to say that I think the number one thing that led me here has been the people. The colleagues in the department, the support staff, the students at all levels, every one of them has been so supportive, enthusiastic, helpful, and welcoming in a way that I really believe is unique to UIC, especially among the R1 institutes I’ve seen. It has been a wonderful environment to walk in to, and I couldn’t be happier about it!

[For the second part], so much! In some ways it feels like the first time I can plan projects on a longer timescale (given the short-term nature and lack of job security on the way up), but now that I’m here I’m really looking forward to taking advantage of that! I’ve designed some new research programs that are meant to emphasize comparisons across species, brain regions, computational models and more that I’m really excited about, and these are going to take many many years to complete (if they’ll ever truly be done). And this is all going to be done with an eye towards open science, to generate datasets that will not only be useful now, but continue to be useful moving forward for the field as a publicly-available resource. I’ve benefitted a lot from folks who have shared data with me in the past, and I’m excited to do my part and give back for all those on the way up like I was. Though for the coming months I think I’ll take ‘things are being set up’ as a win.

[TT] Last question! Would you mind sharing a fun fact about yourself or a hobby you enjoy?

[AK] So many activities! I really love to bike, to skateboard (though I might be switching to lower-impact options soon; getting a little old for that), and to play Magic the Gathering (nerd alert). And I of course need to plug that I love playing music with my fabulous partner, shout out to Babenado, Fer Sher, and The Leanover! Check us out on the internet!

[TT] Absolutely awesome! Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed! 

[AK] Thanks for asking me to do this!