Emily Speed

Emily Speed, PhD Student
Psychology, Utah State University


What is your work/research topic? Currently I’m researching how language of instruction in school affects how kids think about math. I’m going into dual language immersion schools and giving kids certain cognitive tests that test what sorts of math knowledge they’ve internalized and automated, and what they still have to consciously think about.

20170114_213700Emily Speed is a PhD Student at Utah State University. Follow Emily @vivalaveloz.

What was your best day of science?
In my undergraduate lab, I was helping my PI with some data analysis on language brokering and mental health. I’d spent a full year fiddling with this data set, cleaning it up in Excel and learning how to use SPSS. One day, I ran some moderation/mediation analyses and THEY WERE SIGNIFICANT. I almost fell out of my chair! It was the first time anything I’d done had been statistically significant, which was incredibly exciting for me.

What was your worst day in science? I haven’t been doing neuroscience quite long enough to have any good brain stories yet, so my worst day in science is the other side of the coin from my best day. In the same undergraduate lab we were conducting our own student-led study on grit (passion and perseverance for long term goals) to see if it was still a valid concept at a large public university. My labmate and I had spent almost a year and a half with this data, collecting it, cleaning it, trying to make sense of it… it was not significant, and it was a big surprise to us. Our abstract had already been accepted to a big regional conference so we had to take a long hard look at our data and try to puzzle out what was so different from previous significant grit data in other studies. It turned out alright in the end, but getting that non-significant result felt heart-breaking at the time.

What did/are you study at university? Over the course of my undergraduate career, I studied psychology, speech language pathology, linguistics, Spanish, cognitive science, studio art… and those are just the minors and majors I had declared at one time or another. I graduated with a BA in psychology though, so it’s the one that matters. Currently I’m studying Educational Neuroscience for my PhD and Latin American history and culture as a hobby.

What does your average day look like? Currently there is no “average day” for me. Mondays and Tuesdays are slam-packed, and the rest of the week is slow lab time dedicated to data collection, reading and doing literature review, and writing. Here’s my (real) schedule for Monday, January 23rd.

9am- Drive my daughter to daycare (having been both fed and clothed). Ride the campus shuttle to my building.
9:30-10:30am- Teach a section of Cognitive Psychology Lab, discussing perception and consciousness.
10:45am- Pop into the lab to run an EEG participant for a labmate’s dissertation on decision-making and theory of mind. Get lunch if there’s time.
12:00pm- Go to university’s charter school to assess second graders’ awareness of math principles for a colleague’s study that might eventually contribute to my own research
1:00-3:30pm- Attend Cognition & Instruction class (taught by my advisor!). Leave early to make it to the bus stop on time to get to next class.
3:30-6:00pm- Attend Fundamentals of Neuroscience II. Try to arrive before the rest of the class eats all the pizza that the professor gets us as apology for making us come off campus.
6:15- Pick my daughter up either from her dad or from daycare
7:00-9:00pm- Make some dinner, do some puzzles with her, and then bedtime for both of us.

What are some of the highlights of your career right now? I’m only one semester into my PhD so I’m still getting my feet wet. I’ve presented at big regional conference (SEPA), submitted a manuscript with my undergraduate advisor that (maybe, hopefully) should be published this spring, had an abstract accepted to SRCD… nothing major, but enough to give me hope for the future!

What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? A lab that frequently collaborates with mine has an fNIRS machine. I haven’t quite mustered up the courage to use it myself yet, but I was a “pilot data point” for a lab  mate’s study and just watching it in action was awe-inspiring.


summersymposiumWhere did you grow up? I grew up in Pensacola, FL. Coming to Utah has been a big change in climate! I’d never seen snow before.

What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? I wanted to be a fighter pilot until I was about 13 when I decided that I wanted to be a neuroscientist.

What do you do to relax outside of lab? I meditate a lot, hang out with my lovely three-year-old daughter, bullet journal, and cross stitch.

Do you have any pets? I have a cat named Minerva.

Do you have any fun hobbies? I skate (longboard) and snowboard. I also bullet journal obsessively and cross stitch, but I’m not sure those count as “fun!”

If you want to talk about your family, what is your family life? How did your family develop alongside your career?  My parents and grandmother (love you Mamaw!) are all still back in Pensacola, so my family life is limited to my three-year-old daughter right now. However, now that work and school are one and the same (thank you teaching assistantships!) I have much more free time to spend with my daughter than I did while I was in undergrad.


What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Don’t let anyone ever tell you that you can’t do something.

Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist?
I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder at age 13, and with chronic depression at 19. From the moment that I knew I had depression, I wanted to find out why it happened and why my brain was so different.

Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? My interest eventually grew from depression into other aspects of neuroscience like language acquisition and numerical cognition, which is why I’m here today. For a while I wanted to go into speech language pathology, but I couldn’t quite make that mesh with my broader interests in neuroscience and language acquisition.

What was your biggest challenge during your degree? I like to say that I have a “If I Can Do It, So Can You” path towards graduate school. In addition to trying to learn literally everything, I also had two year-long medical withdrawals for my depression, bureaucratic issues with transferring between schools three times, had a child and a divorce, and worked full-time! My bachelors’ degree took eight years to finish! Just getting done with it and having a semi-respectable GPA at the end was a major challenge.

What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? I have a relentless passion for learning. Getting a PhD was a natural extension of my drive to learn everything I can about how the brain.

Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? I feel like if there were more women in positions of power, academia would be more understanding of family responsibilities and the necessity of a healthy work-life balance. I’m lucky that my lab and my institution are very family friendly, but when I interviewed or sent applications out I was very wary of mentioning motherhood at all.


What is your favorite book? The Source by James Michener.
What is your favorite desk snack? I’ve got a terrible weakness for yogurt- or dark chocolate-covered raisins.
What is your favorite cartoon? Avatar: The Last Airbender
What would you listen to while writing? I work best to reggaetón and 80s heavy metal.
What was your favorite subject in high school? World History
What color socks are you wearing? black and grey plaid
What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? An apple-sized bisected dinosaur egg that my grandfather gave me. I use it as a paperweight.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? I’d love dearly to say organization nut, but the state of my desk right now says otherwise!
Any other fun facts about you…
I’m very slowly learning to speak Kaqchikel Mayan (my half-baked back up plan is to move to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and start a dual language immersion school).
I’ve hiked a very tiny bit of the Georgia end of the Appalachian Trail and hope to thru-hike it someday.
Until November 2016, I had never seen snow before.
I’ve read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at least 100 times. It was wonderfully escapist as a kid with horrible depression. To honor Harry having saved my life, I have a massive tattoo of the cover art on my shoulder.


Blog/Website: easpeed.com