Meet Dr. Jacquelyn Berry: Cognitive Scientist & Dr. World Africa 2022

Dr. Jacquelyn Berry is assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at AUC. She is a cognitive scientist who studies learning and expertise. She graduated with a doctorate from the University at Albany in New York and prior to that attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where she earned her BS, MBA, and MS degrees. Dr. Jacquelyn Berry uses video games for her research, particularly the game Tetris in which she studies the learning curve from novice through expects and compares Arabic-English biliterates with English monolinguals. 

Dr. Jacquelyn Berry has been mesmerized by the study of psychology ever since she was a little girl. Her mom once told her that ‘psychology’ is the study of the mind and she’s carried that with her ever since. One of her goals is to make research and the field of psychology a more inclusive experience for all. It is something that Dr. Jacquelyn Berry talks about very deeply. 

We sat down with Dr. Jacquelyn Berry to know her full story! 

Dr. Jacquelyn Berry, tell us, have you always been passionate about psychology and wanted to pursue it?

I believe understanding the mind is the key to everything.

Even other sciences and disciplines, such as math, physics, business, and chemistry must first go through the mind to be understood. It’s an amazing gift that God has given us.

What are some of the misconceptions about psychology that you’d like to address? 

I study learning, expertise, and human-computer interaction which is different than what most people think of when they hear “psychology.”

I want people to also think of the amazing things that “go right” with the brain, all the things we do without thinking, the things we take for granted, all day every day. 

In addition to appreciating our minds as amazing machines I want mental health to come to the fore and be understood to be just as important as physical health. Just like we take care of our bodies and visit a specialist when something is wrong, we must also take care of our minds and if something does not seem right, we should go see someone. 

I am very proud of AUC for setting up a mental health task force and of our Psychology Department for hosting all of the great activities for Mental Health Week. There were even visits to classrooms by the Center for Student Well-being who did a great job engaging the students. Again, it’s about not taking for granted but instead appreciating the amazing gift that is our mind and brain.

Can you tell us more about implementing Tetris in your research?

I have loved the game Tetris for a long time and it was a delightful surprise for me to learn during my post-doctoral work that I could build a career around it. What makes it special is the very long learning curve that differentiates novices and experts. I study world champions as well as people who have never played. 

Like chess, it provides great insight into the human mind. It is also dynamic, complex, and requires fast thinking which makes it great for understanding how people “level up” as they improve in these types of tasks. 

I have even found that students learn about themselves when they play. For the past several semesters I have had students play Tetris for many hours in order to collect longitudinal data. One student mentioned that because of Tetris they realized they worked better under pressure and when there was a challenge. Other students have reported similar introspections: playing Tetris for a long time gave them insight into their own minds.

What change do you hope to see in the future regarding your field of research? 

In my view, psychology research is not as inclusive as it could be. I recognize, and research has also shown, that most of what we know about the human mind is based on a limited population of young college students. This is great for the students to understand how research works and for professors to gather data for writing papers, but how much more might we learn if we included people over 25 years old, or people who do not speak English, or people who are not well educated?

If we want psychology and science to apply to everyone then we should do research with everyone. 

My platform as Dr. World Africa is “Inclusivity in Science” which I am addressing by including members of the community in my development work for projects requiring technical work and for participating in my research. 

How does being selected as Dr. World Africa affect you and your research process?

 My platform is “Inclusivity in Science” and I hope that I can use the prestige of the title to gain support for my research. I am now seeking grants that will help me include members of the community, and others not normally involved in academic research, in my work. I hope that grant-funding organizations recognize that I can help them as well as them helping me. By supporting me and the platform I stand for they can raise awareness for their own philanthropic efforts. 

How does being selected as Dr. World Africa help you in your goal of the inclusion of Arabic and African people in cognitive science? 

My research process continues to be to include as many participants as possible, from many different backgrounds, and I hope that my selection as Dr. World Africa will improve my efforts. I believe my selection as Dr. World Africa helps to demonstrate my commitment to the region. 

Though I am American, my work is here in Africa and I feel strongly that psychological science has not always included Arabic and African people in the research. I find this frustrating. By adding my voice, my heart, and my talents, I can increase awareness about the richness of scientific possibilities in Egypt and in the MENA and African regions.

What are you working on right now? 

Putting “my money where my mouth is” so to speak and working on how to include non-traditional research participants in my studies. I also have a reactive artificial intelligence algorithm that I developed to potentially help people learn through reinforcement; much like how machine learning takes place. I have several experiments I am currently examining the data for to turn into papers and several more planned. 

What are your future goals? 

I would like to make an impact by changing our approach towards how people learn and interact with computers. Whether it’s video games or teleoperating robots in space, it is still people interacting with machines.

I would also like to meaningfully broaden inclusivity in cognitive science research and the development of the software tools we use to study the mind. I would also like to win Dr. World!

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