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Meet New Associate Dean for Research Evangelia Chrysikou, PhD

By Gina Myers

September 20, 2021

As in-person life on campus resumes this fall, researchers will be returning to full capacity in their labs. In the College of Arts and Sciences, the researchers will have a new associate dean for research to look to for guidance and support.

Evangelia Chrysikou, PhD, was appointed to a three-year term as associate dean for research following her service as interim associate dean. A cognitive neuroscientist who focuses on processes associated with cognitive control, language, memory, creativity and problem solving, she is the author of over 50 articles published in top-rated journals, including Journal of Experimental Psychology, NeuroImage, Brain Stimulation, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychological Science. She has received funding from the NIH, the NSF and the Department of Transportation, among others. The impact of her work in neurostimulation and creativity is highly cited, with a record of citation currently above 2,200.

The Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Director of the Applied Cognitive and Brain Sciences PhD program is looking forward to the return to campus and getting to support the robust research taking place in the College.

Evangelia Chrysikou

“The research happening in the College of Arts and Sciences is exciting, creative, socially relevant, world-class and impactful. What makes our college so special is this diversity and complementarity that highlight the importance of liberal arts and sciences in addressing current world challenges,” says Chrysikou. “With their notable publications—including books and articles—multiple prestigious fellowships and distinctions, national and international research recognition, and several multi-million-dollar research awards, our faculty and students are consistently keeping our college in the top three to four colleges for research productivity across Drexel—an impressive achievement!”

In her new role, Chrysikou will contribute to the management, strategy and implementation of the College’s sponsored research programs (grants and contracts) as well as funding in support of scholarship and creative activities.

Chrysikou recently took the time to answer questions about her own research, the importance of undergraduate research opportunities and her goals as associate dean, among other things.

Can you begin by telling me a little about your academic career?

I completed my undergraduate studies in psychology at Panteion University in Athens, Greece, where I grew up. Several of my professors were engaged in research, and I had the opportunity to participate actively in many research projects across multiple domains within psychology, including cognitive, clinical, social and developmental. Beyond providing me with an excellent training on scientific thinking, these experiences got me hooked on research. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else! I obtained my PhD in cognition and neuroscience from Temple University, followed by a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuropsychology there, working with patients with neurodegenerative disorders, and another five-year postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. I was an assistant professor at the University of Kansas before joining Drexel as an associate professor in 2018, and a proud Dragon ever since.

Was there a moment when you first knew that you wanted to pursue psychology? What is it about the field that attracted you?

I’ve always been interested in why people do the things they do, so psychology has continuously been on the top of my list. But psychology is an inherently multidisciplinary and diverse field. After delving deeper into many areas of psychology during my college days, I have been particularly fascinated by how people solve problems creatively—how they come up with new ideas to face a challenge ahead. I think the one experience that “sealed the deal” for me was my involvement in research as an undergraduate. I sought as many research experiences as I could in college. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience was where I felt at home—and still is! Studying the cognitive and brain processes that underlie complex thinking and its implications for learning and cognitive flexibility keeps me very excited.

Can you tell me a little about your research interests?

I use cognitive neuroscience methods to study how people learn and remember information about the world around them, especially everyday objects. I am especially interested in the fascinating ways people use what they know about common objects to solve everyday problems creatively and efficiently (e.g., a shoe as a hammer). To address these questions, I am collecting a combination of behavioral, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), and transcranial electrical current stimulation (tECS) data from healthy adults and neuropsychological populations. My research further explores the educational applications of understanding and developing this kind of flexible thinking, as well as the implications of cognitive flexibility in characterizing psychiatric disorders like depression and anxiety.

I understand you recently received an NSF grant to support a project titled “Collaborative Research: Learning Preferences and Domain Differences in Design Fixation.” Can you tell me about this project and its possible implications?

My collaborator, Dr. John Gero at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, and I are very excited to be launching this three-year project this month. Learning to design in formal engineering and design education often involves presentation and extensive studying of existing designs as examples. Interestingly, research from design science has shown that the use of pictorial examples during the presentation of design problems can support learning of engineering principles and design constraints. On the other hand, it can also bias designers and engineering design students toward replicating the examples, even in the presence of explicit instructions to avoid them. This phenomenon is known as design fixation—one’s tendency to adhere to elements of prior ideas or solutions to a problem that can present obstacles for creative problem solving. As design problems inherently contain the opportunity for innovation, design fixation is a significant barrier to the generation of new design ideas and solutions.

Intriguingly, early findings from engineering education have suggested that different engineering fields exhibit different susceptibility to design fixation, with industrial designers showing markedly less fixation to pictorial examples than mechanical engineers. Instructional and curricular differences between the two design disciplines appear to lead to differences in learning and concept building that can provide immunity to design fixation. Despite the widespread use of examples across design education, however, systematic empirical investigations of engineering domain differences in design fixation are notably lacking. Critically, the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying design fixation that could provide an account for discipline-specific differences remain unknown. With NSF’s generous support, our project will address this gap in our knowledge about learning to design in the presence of pictorial examples through a novel combination of behavioral and brain imaging methods and by focusing on design disciplines that vary on their susceptibility to design fixation. Our goal is to establish a clear framework for the cognitive and neural processes implicated in design fixation from examples as a foundation for the development of educational strategies that can shield designers from its effects. Thus, the results of this project have the potential to be applicable and generalize across much of STEM education by informing and advancing curricula and interventions to ward off design fixation. We can’t wait to begin data collection on this project.

What are your responsibilities as the associate dean for research in the College of Arts and Sciences?

As associate dean for research, my responsibilities are very diverse (as research itself!), especially for a multidisciplinary and bustling unit like our College of Arts and Sciences. My team supports all things research at the College—from identifying and communicating grant opportunities relevant to our faculty—including generating our quarterly research newsletter with the College Research Committee—to supporting the submission of extramural research grants, helping PIs with post-award management in collaboration with our financial team, interfacing with other colleges and schools and our Office of Research and Innovation, and solving all kinds of problems related to the wonderful research by our faculty and students taking place at our college.

One of the things that Drexel prides itself on is the access to research opportunities for undergraduate students. Why is this important?

Being exposed as an undergraduate student to research in the subfield of one’s choice can be an enlightening experience: students may find that the research lifestyle exactly matches their expectations and interests; or they may decide this is not the right career path for them and opt for other alternatives. Regardless of decisions about post-graduation plans, what I find the most beneficial about pursuing these hands-on research opportunities is cultivating a research mindset—an inquisitive way of thinking about any topic. How to ask a question and be able to answer it by applying the right method, putting your ideas to the test, and reaching conclusions that can inform the next question. That’s the beauty of the research conducted in our college. We are fortunate to have such wonderful resources in support of undergraduate education, including the STAR and Aspire Scholars programs and the fellowship opportunities within the Pennoni Honors College. I have been lucky to have two or three undergraduate students in my lab each year. I have learned so much from looking at a research project through the fresh eyes of a student who is not as immersed in the field as I am!

Do you have any specific goals for your tenure as associate dean?

Coming back to campus and fully resuming our research operations this fall, while still in a pandemic, is expected to present our faculty and students with some challenges, so my first goal is to support our departments during this transition. More long-term, I would like to streamline and formalize our research operations to reduce red-tape obstacles for our investigators, grow our research portfolio to spotlight our faculty’s cross-disciplinary research in collaboration with other colleges, expand our college’s connections to industry, and, last but not least, pursue research training grants that will support and develop our diversity, equity and inclusion efforts throughout the college. It is an honor and a privilege to be in this role, and I look forward to working with our faculty and my colleagues at the Dean’s Office toward these objectives.