Sharda Umanath maps our memory blips

Cognitive psychologist Sharda Umanath and her CMC student researchers are cartographers in the largely uncharted ‘zone of proximal retrieval” of our knowledge bases.

“Wait, wait… I know that… It’s on the tip of my tongue.” 

Everyone has experienced this form of “memory retrieval failure.” Yet common as tip-of-the-tongue events are, remarkably little is known in general about the cognitive terrain surrounding them: the hills and valleys of what psychologists call “marginal knowledge.”

Now, thanks to a $700,000 National Science Foundation grant, Sharda Umanath and her student researchers are poised to become the Magellans of this uncharted territory.

An assistant professor at Claremont McKenna College, Umanath vividly recalls her light-bulb moment. She was a student herself at the time, working in the Duke University memory lab of her doctoral advisor, Beth Marsh.

An older gentleman, a participant in one of Umanath’s dissertation studies, made a seemingly banal comment to her.

“He said: ‘Gosh, I wish I could say “I don't remember” instead of “I don’t know” on this test. Because I know I know this answer. I just can’t get at it.’”

Umanath has since devoted much of her scholarship to the important distinction that study participant was trying to make: the difference between accessible memory and available memory—“something we theorize about in memory research but that isn’t often tackled directly,” she says.

The volunteer’s comment stayed with her, and she eventually added the “I don’t remember” option to her general knowledge tests.

This year Umanath landed a prestigious NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program award to speed her progress. Open only to pre-tenured faculty, the Career award is the hallmark of a rising young teacher-scholar.

“What makes this grant really special,” she says, “is that you need a clear idea of how to translate the research into educational initiatives.”

“I want to carve up that space”

Umanath, who is the sole principal investigator on the grant, won’t be doing it all on her own - the NSF grant will be conducted in collaboration with Jen Coane of Colby College. They began working together through a 2015 travel and networking grant from the Women in Cognitive Science and the Psychonomics Society awarded to Umanath.

Their five-year project sets out to empirically define what Umanath calls a “zone of proximal retrieval”—where inaccessible knowledge resides and can be reclaimed with the aid of prompts, repetition and other learning strategies.

“The literature has not addressed the continuum between ‘it’s-on-the-tip-of-my tongue’ and ‘it-was-never-there-to-begin-with,’” she explains. “I want to carve up that space.”

Umanath’s testbed consists of hundreds of general knowledge questions (e.g. “Name the archduke whose assassination sparked World War I”) identified through earlier studies. Her research team will use these questions to pin down the marginal knowledge (MK) base of about 200 volunteers, defining along the way the buckets of “knowledge retrieval failure” in healthy aging. Then they’ll apply the abundant literature on “encoding” new learning via effective study strategies to see what works best to retrieve and retain MK in adults, documenting how that differs in younger and older adults.

Student research assistants will administer the general knowledge tests, conduct participant debriefs and carry out the memory retrieval interventions. Their stipends, including travel expenses to attend conferences, are part of the NSF grant. The RAs will also disseminate study results through a series of aging and memory seminars Umanath will organize at retirement communities in the Claremont-Pomona area.

Another educational component of the grant will help fund a new pre-orientation program for first-generation CMC students in partnership with the Dean of Students Office and the student group 1Gen. Umanath is modeling it on an academic bootcamp for psychology majors developed by Maryanne Garry at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, New Zealand. Umanath closely observed that curriculum a few years ago while on sabbatical there. First-years in the CMC edition of the program will gain critical-thinking skills, build scientific literacy and chart their own marginal knowledge.

Also covered by the grant is a special service-learning course on aging and memory that Umanath will roll out Fall 2022. Run in partnership with the Pilgrim Place senior community’s Napier Initiative, the intergenerational class will bring together CMC undergraduates and seniors interested in the topic.  

Umanath anticipates no shortage of students signing up. Seniors already enjoy free audit privileges at the Five Colleges through the CALL (Claremont Avenues for Lifelong Learning) program.

“The whole community of older adults has this sense of engagement with the Claremont Colleges and of being part of research,” she says. “I’m probably at the best liberal arts college to be doing this work.” Umanath credits cognitive scientists Deborah Burke of Pomona College and Leah Light of Pitzer with laying the foundation: both are respected memory and aging experts who spent their careers here until retiring in recent years.  

“I’m just stepping into their shoes and carrying on this legacy,” Umanath says.

“In healthy aging, lots of things go right”

Relaxed in her office on the second floor of Seaman Hall, Umanath reflects on how she got here.

Born in Houston, she was raised in college towns across Ohio, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. Her Indian-born parents had moved to the United States more than 40 years ago. Her father, now a retired professor of information systems at University of Cincinnati, was defending his dissertation the day Umanath was born. Mom is a retired systems analyst, and her older brother, a doctor.   

As a kid, she interacted a lot with older adults.

“I used to call bingo once a month at a senior home,” she says. “My parents were really into community service, so that’s always been a part of my life.”

Umanath went to college at Washington University, where she studied philosophy, neuroscience, psychology and classics.

“I got into a freshman focus program called Mind, Brain and Behavior. It was basically cognitive psychology on steroids. I loved it,” she recalls.

In her second year, she was placed in the lab of Kathleen McDermott, a world-famous authority on how human memory is encoded and retrieved, and mentored by then graduate student Karl Szpunar, now a professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. Umanath went on to doctoral studies at Duke, where her advisor turned her on to the niche field of aging and memory. 

“That just changed everything for me. It was awesome to work with older adults,” Umanath says. “They’re so enthusiastic and interested in the research.”

As she read around the literature, however, Umanath couldn’t help noticing the focus was invariably on what goes wrong—“which is understandable,” she notes. “Unfortunately, a lot of things do go wrong, even in healthy aging. But lots of things go right, and that wasn’t getting attention.” For example, contrary to popular opinion, “knowledge seems to actually increase or at the very least remain intact into very old age,” she says.

Determined to accentuate the positive, Umanath is now bringing together two siloed areas of memory research.

In recent years, the application of cognitive psychology principles to education has exploded, with studies showing how a plethora of memory-building mechanisms can advance new learning. Meanwhile, Umanath says, “there’s literally a single researcher, Harry Bahrick, who has studied lifetime maintenance of knowledge with his team.” The now-retired Ohio Wesleyan researcher’s longitudinal work on high school memories followed a cohort of participants across 50 years. 

Umanath’s NSF Career grant will undoubtedly advance memory science by synthesizing these two bodies of work. But its downwind effects may be even more important.

“I think the biggest impact I can have is mentoring students on how to do research, getting them excited about it,” she says. “That will happen much more frequently than a paper coming out. And it’s much more overtly gratifying for me.”

- Diane Krieger

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With the NSF’s agreement, all of the work has been postponed a year due to the pandemic. 

An advisory board will support Umanath’s decisions regarding grant-related research and education initiatives. The board includes Nate Kornell, an expert on learners’ beliefs at Williams College; Lynda Hall, an expert on lifetime maintenance of knowledge at Ohio Wesleyan University; Maryanne Garry, of University of Waikato; and Gilles O. Einstein of Furman University.