Summer Programs Faculty Focus: About Memory and Sleep with Professor Rebecca Spencer

    Posted by Brock Parent on Feb 8, 2016 10:00:00 AM

    In 2016, Lab, Neuroscience

    Dr. Rebecca Spencer is an associate professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences in the College of Natural Sciences at UMass Amherst. She studies the neuroscientific relationship between memory and sleep, both in children as it relates to learning and adults as it may relate to the loss of memory. Dr. Spencer is looking for up to five high-school-aged research assistants to join her in her lab this summer as a part of UMass Summer Pre-College's six-week Research Intensives program that places ambitious high-schoolers in research labs with distinguished faculty members.

    Dr. Spencer grew up in Michigan, where she was an avid runner. This passion for running led her to study Kinesiology and Biology in her undergraduate career at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, as she was fascinated by movement and the science behind it. In her graduate studies, Dr. Spencer was drawn to studying the neural control of movement and completed a Ph.D at Purdue University in Neuroscience. She followed this up with several years of post-doctoral research at the University of California Berkeley where she "followed the questions" that were coming up in her research. Spencer admitted that you "never know where the answer is going to lead", resulting in "going down a path you could never have predicted."

    Dr. Spencer's lab today is researching the cognitive neuroscience of sleep, a path she certainly didn't envision when starting her undergraduate career at Hope College. Yet she is passionate about what she is studying now, and sees lots of ways that her research is applicable to the everyday lives of students. "Once we teach people the function of sleep - which students will learn in six weeks in the lab - they'll practice healthier sleep themselves," Spencer told me. "As soon as you see any data, it's 100% convincing that we need better sleep patterns. Hopefully students will learn not to pull all-nighters, to remember the importance of sleep and to take care of themselves."

    I asked Spencer about this convincing data, and she told me a bit about her work with pre-schools, where they are studying the importance of a midday nap in students' development. Dr. Spencer put it in simple terms: "If preschool children take a nap they remember what they've learned. Skip a nap and you lose 15% of it." Love to sleep and want to defend your right to copious amounts of it? Working in Dr. Spencer's lab might just provide you with the handy statistics needed to convince your teacher/parent/friend that this nap you want to take is actually for your education...

    In addition to justifying your love of sleep, the opportunity to work in Dr. Spencer's lab can also help provide some clarity as to what exactly your academic interests are and position you to get a head start on your college education once you get there. Spencer said that her lab has been a space where students can "learn early what areas of science they like and don't like." Often times students don't get to dive into the topics they think they are interested in in such a hands-on manner while still in high school, and Spencer spoke of students who had "flip-flopped between wanting to do human and animal research" once they got into the lab and were "exposed to a breadth of research that helps them pin down what they want to study." As far as positioning yourself to be successful in college, students in the Spencer Lab will be working day-to-day with graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, experiencing what laboratory research "lifestyle" is like, something many students identify as a path they want to explore. Students who successfully complete their six weeks in the Spencer Lab often request letters of recommendation from Spencer, and their experience doing summer research will "make them candidates for early research in undergrad, which is becoming more and more important."

    While working in the Spencer Lab is engaging and rigorous, Spencer also emphasized that "the fun always comes in our lab," as they are "always doing a few adventures, going on a hike, doing the general things we don't have time for in the academic year." She spoke of the wonderful experience she has had working with previous pre-college students, and is excited for the students who will be joining her and her team this summer!

    If you want to spend six weeks in the lab and on the side of a mountain with Dr. Rebecca Spencer (and if you're lucky these beautiful dogs), you can find more information, along with all of our other programs for pre-college students, at!! Additionally, for more information on the Spencer Lab, head to their website:

    Website and Application

    Are you a high school senior who is coming to UMass next Fall? Check out Jump!, our transitional four-week program for incoming students, at

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