Chance, said one of history’s most famous scientists, favors the prepared mind. Kyle Mathewson, a young scientist and member of the newest class of Beckman Institute Fellows, illustrates the point.
Mathewson came to the University of Illinois to earn a Ph.D. in Psychology and work at the Beckman Institute with some of the country’s top neuroscience researchers in their state-of-the-art neuroimaging labs. The study of event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and neuroscience in general fascinated Mathewson while working in the lab of Illinois alumnus Clay Holyrod at the University of Victoria in his native Canada. While earning a doctorate, he wanted to continue and expand imaging-based brain research at Illinois in labs such as the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory (CNL) of Beckman faculty members Gabriele Gratton and Monica Fabiani.
“I had been using electrophysiology (at Victoria), doing ERP research, so Beckman was a good place for me,” Mathewson said. “It was also the only place where you could do optical imaging, the type of optical imaging that Monica and Gabriele do; this was the place to come to.”
It was a place, as Louis Pasteur would say, that quickly turned into a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a young, prepared grad student like Mathewson – an opportunity that he, Gratton, Fabiani, and their collaborators soon took advantage of with a groundbreaking research line. Soon after he joined the CNL, Mathewson discovered a phenomenon called a “pulsed inhibition” brain mechanism that explained how the visual system often fails to perceive stimuli from the environment that at other times would be readily detectable. Imaging data showed the existence of the mechanism and gave credence to a theory of visual awareness that had been lacking experimental proof.
Mathewson was lead author on the paper reporting the research in the Journal of Neuroscience, joining four faculty members on the report. The discovery led to more papers and a new way of thinking about the human visual system.
“We were really lucky to find that phenomenon, and we found it right at a place and time when the field was ripe for that,” Mathewson said. “We didn’t set out looking for that so it was a really lucky opportunity, and that there were the resources and people here to keep pushing it forward. And I had the freedom that I wasn’t bogged down on some other project and could focus on that.”
– Kyle Mathewson
Those resources and people were why Mathewson came to Illinois and Beckman. The type of freedom he enjoyed while pursuing research in the CNL was also on his mind when he decided to apply to the Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows program. Fellows aren’t required to teach or assume other duties; they are left to pursue interdisciplinary research goals with Beckman faculty.
“It means the freedom to do the research that you want, and to do interdisciplinary research,” Mathewson said. “There’s no expectation as a Beckman Fellow about what my role is just because I’m a cognitive neuroscientist. It seems that you are open to do whatever you want.”
However, his research success as an undergrad did not guarantee his acceptance into the 2011 class of Beckman Postdoctoral Fellows. For a decade after the first class of Beckman Institute Postdoctoral Fellows was named in 1992, there were none selected from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for this coveted program, and only five since 2002. This year, Mathewson became the sixth.
“I knew it was a rare thing to be from Illinois and get in,” Mathewson said. “I also was warned when I was applying that it likely wouldn’t happen. I feel really honored and thankful that they gave me the opportunity.”
As a Fellow, Mathewson continues to work in the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory and also works with Beckman researcher Dan Simons. But he is also expanding his research through proposed projects involving materials science and animal models, which should make for a truly interdisciplinary research resume by the time his Beckman Fellows days are done.
“The fact that Beckman values interdisciplinary so much and that you’re not expected to work specifically with one faculty really makes for a good opportunity to be an independent researcher,” Mathewson said. “And also you can push the field in ways that haven’t been done before. If you’re doing what your advisor does, you’re never going to make connections across fields that your advisor isn’t in.”
It was in the classes and lab of his advisor Holyrod – who himself worked in a lab at Beckman – that Mathewson first took advantage of opportunity.
“Psychology, I sometimes felt, was a little in the clouds but neuroscience was a way to tie it down to physical phenomenon,” Mathewson said. “I saw in a psychology class that Clay was teaching that there were biological explanations for many of the things that psychologists had been explaining just by observing. They had tracked down the molecular pathways by which learning can occur. When I saw that was possible, that was kind of a snap moment for me.”
This article is part of the Fall 2011 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.