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SFU Psychology welcomes new professor Brianne Kent

December 14, 2020
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In January 2021, Brianne Kent joins the Department of Psychology as an Assistant Professor. This represents a return to Simon Fraser University for Kent, as she previously completed her BA at SFU in 2009 before completing her MSc and MPhil at Yale University, PhD at the University of Cambridge, and finally postdoctoral training at the University of British Columbia. In the Translational Neuroscience Lab, Kent’s research work focuses on combining fundamental and clinical research to study how disrupted circadian rhythms and sleep contribute to the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Prior to her appointment at SFU, Kent was a Research Fellow in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

In a recent interview, Kent shares what brought her back to SFU, her research interests, as well as advice for students considering graduate school.

What brought you to Simon Fraser University?

I grew up in Port Moody and attended SFU as an undergrad, so it is quite special to be returning to Burnaby Mountain as an Assistant Professor to start my own research group. SFU is such a diverse, innovative, and collaborative community, which makes it ideal for research and teaching.

How did your research interests in neuroscience, learning and memory, sleep, etc, get started?

My interests in neuroscience started with Dr. Neil Watson’s course PSYC 280: Introduction to Biological Psychology. It was a fascinating course that described clever experiments from researchers around the world to link specific processes in the brain to cognition and behaviour. I realized that there was so much we still did not understand about how our brain stores memories, and that peaked my curiosity in learning about neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease when our memories are seemingly lost.

What is the most important issue that your research work addresses? And why/how is it important to you in particular?

My research is focused on understanding how the sleep and circadian rhythm disturbances associated with Alzheimer’s disease contribute to the progressive memory loss caused by the disease. I first learned about the powerful influence circadian rhythms have on our physiology and behaviour when I completed my undergraduate honours thesis at SFU with Dr. Ralph Mistlberger. I have spent the last 2 years at Harvard Medical School as a Research Fellow developing techniques for studying circadian rhythms in humans. By studying the same processes in rodents and humans, my work is trying to shrink the “translational gap”. This refers to the challenge of moving discoveries from fundamental science and preclinical research into the clinical domain, which is a big hurdle in Alzheimer’s disease research. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia and a leading cause of death in Canada, with unfortunately very limited treatments. By conducting research on translation, I hope that my work will lead to new treatments for this devastating disease.

What are you most looking forward to in working at SFU and also in the Department of Psychology?

I am looking forward to offering research opportunities for students who are starting to think about graduate school or a research career. While research can be slow and frustrating at times, it is a creative process where you get to think about what we currently do not know or understand, and how we can design an experiment to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I am also looking forward to developing a new course curriculum for PSYC 325: Learning and Memory. While I was a graduate student at Yale University, I worked with Dr. Thomas Brown as a Teaching Fellow for his undergraduate course on the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. I am excited to use what I learned from his course towards developing PSYC 325.

Do you have any advice to students who may want to consider graduate school or a career in Psychology?

For students considering graduate school, try to seek out research opportunities. By gaining hands-on research experience, you will learn whether research is really the right path for you and it will clarify the research questions and the level of analysis that you want to pursue in graduate school. Seeking research opportunities will also enable you to speak to current graduate students and learn more about graduate school from their perspective. While I was an undergraduate student at SFU, I worked in a social psychology lab and biological psychology labs through Research Assistantships, Directed Studies, and the Honours program. These experiences were invaluable when I was considering graduate school.