Dr. Elina Birmingham is an Associate Professor in the Educational Psychology program at the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University. Her research examines how children, adolescents, and adults attend to and interpret social information. In addition, she examines how mechanisms of social attention and perception operate differently in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Dr. Birmingham’s research uses a variety of methodologies, including behavioural measures of face perception, eye tracking studies of scene perception, automated analysis of facial expressions, and observations of social attention as people interact in the real world. She says a central goal of her research is to determine the real-world implications of how we attend to and perceive information about other people. Her recent work is also examining how atypical sensory processing associated with ASD, like hypersensitivity to sound, interferes with social and learning opportunities for children with ASD, and to find new technological solutions to address sound sensitivity.
Her research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and by Kids Brain Health Network (KBHN).
In conversation with the Spotlight Series, Dr. Birmingham shared her academic journey, her current research projects and her suggestions for students interested to pursue this field of study.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your academic background and your research.
My research interests can be characterized by three paradigm shifts over the years: 1) A shift from basic research to research that is more applied in nature, 2) A shift from studying solely “typical” cognitive function to being interested in how cognitive processes operate in special populations like autism; 3) A shift from a purely cognitive psychological perspective to situating my research within the field of educational psychology.
During my undergraduate and master’s research I studied very fundamental aspects of visual attention, such as how we orient to peripheral flashes of light to detect targets at various spatial locations. I became a bit disenchanted by what felt was a lack of connection between these laboratory tasks and how visual attention operates in the real world. During my doctoral studies at UBC I decided to make a shift towards studying more “everyday” attention, particularly attention to social stimuli in our natural environments. Our worlds are filled with social stimuli, and we rarely, if ever, go a day without encountering another person. In these encounters, we rapidly extract important social information, and we use this information to modulate our social interactions. For example, most of us are fairly seamless at engaging in back-and-forth conversations, using a variety of verbal and nonverbal clues to know when it is our turn to speak vs. listen, or whether the person we are talking to looks interested or bored. I am very interested in characterizing how we visually attend to other people to extract this information, in particular their faces and eyes, and how these processes contribute to social competence and success in social interactions.
The next shift in my research centered on a burgeoning interest in how social attention differs for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. People with autism are known to have atypical or reduced interest in other people, and a difficulty with interpreting nonverbal cues (such as what the eyes and facial expressions of others convey about how they feel), and yet reliably measuring these processes in the lab has been tricky at times for the field. One of my goals, which began during my postdoctoral training at Caltech, and later at SFU, has been to use different paradigms to tap into social attention differences associated with ASD, stemming from laboratory tasks to real world eye tracking studies and video observations of face-to-face interactions. I am also interested in how people with ASD communicate their own emotional states to others through the use of facial expressions. You can visit this link for more information https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/people-autism-sometimes-give-ambiguous-looks/.
The final shift has been in situating my research in the field of educational psychology. Much of the research I do in this context centers around how best to support students with ASD in school and community settings, and incorporating the voices of individuals on the autism spectrum and their families in developing these understandings.
What called you to pursue the field of cognitive psychology?
In many ways I would say that I stumbled on cognitive psychology as my career path. In my “pre-med” undergraduate years I was told by a friend that it would be useful to volunteer for a psychology research lab, to get a feel for the sciences beyond the medical field. So, I looked up a few faculty members in UBC Psychology and decided to “cold-call” Dr. Alan Kingstone, who was later my PhD advisor. I knocked on his door, rather brazenly asking for a volunteer position in his lab. Given that I had no knowledge of visual attention and had never taken a psychology course, I wouldn’t say I was the best candidate for the position! However, he gave me a chance, and I am so very grateful for it. After one semester volunteering in his lab, I was hooked! Fast forward 20 years, and here we are now.