Pictured: Smit touring around a traditional village on Tanna Island. Grass skirts are traditional dress in Vanuatu. All photos courtesy of Andrea Smit.


PhD graduate Andrea Smit explores industrialization and sleep in tropical paradise

January 20, 2020

Q: Why did you choose to study at Simon Fraser University (SFU) for your MA/PhD program?

A: I chose to study at SFU because I was specifically interested in studying sleep and circadian rhythms, and SFU psychology professor Ralph Mistlberger is well known and respected in this field. Getting to live in the beautiful Vancouver area was a bonus!

Q: What inspired you to learn more about the area of sleep and circadian rhythms?

A: Although research has vastly increased our understanding of the human brain, there is still so much that is unknown, including the function of sleep. An undergraduate course on sleep at Trent University piqued my interest in the field. Our circadian rhythms affect every aspect of our daily life, and disruptions to these rhythms (including sleep rhythms) can have consequences for cognitive, physical, and psychological health. Continued research into this field is of great importance for well-being and getting to be a part of that is very exciting.

Pictured: A local dog and chickens fighting for bread crumbs in a Tanna Island village

Q: You recently published a study about the effects of electric lighting on quality and duration of sleep in Vanuatu. Could you tell us more about this research? What were some key findings?

A: Electric lights used in industrialized nations mimic the sun, tricking our body clocks into keeping us up later into the evening, but we are still forced to wake up early for social obligations such as school or work. Because of this, it has been hypothesized that industrialization, complete with 24-hour access to electric light, has led to chronic sleep deprivation. I spent one month studying sleep in two non-industrial traditional subsistence villages on Tanna Island, Vanuatu, one with electricity, and one without. Our results showed that it took individuals with electricity longer to fall asleep, sleeping almost 30 minutes less (seven-and-a-half hours with electricity vs eight hours without) and of lower quality, which supports the hypothesis that exposure to electric light after sunset can decrease sleep, that may have consequences for health and well-being.

Q: Besides research, what other causes or interests are you passionate about?

A: In my personal life my two biggest passions are mountaineering and living a zero waste environmentally conscious lifestyle. Waste reduction is vital to preserving our world – ditch the disposables!

Pictured: Reinforcing sleeping huts in preparation for a cyclone (hut pictured is for the Broesch lab)

Q: Could you tell us about your future career plans? In addition, could you speak on how your studies at SFU’s MA/PhD program prepared you for your career path?

A: In my graduate program I managed a variety of projects, and engaged in collaborations that taught me many things that are vital in science and valued by employers, such as critical thinking, research design, statistical methods (yes, I know that one is painful, but really important), organizational skills, and most certainly, perseverance and persistence. Having recently completed my graduate program, I plan to take a break from academia and try something new. The research skills I have gained during my graduate studies are transferrable across many industries. They have allowed me to accept a temporary role with Adecco USA, taking me to California to help with user experience research for Google. 

Andrea's research is available for open access in Scientific Reports: