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Dr. Cristina Atance: Associate Professor, Psychology; Director, Graduate Training in Experimental Psychology, University of Ottawa (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2015/01/08


Part one of two, interview with Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa and director of graduate training in experimental psychology, Dr. Cristina Atance.  In it, she discusses: positions, Psynapse, and the lunch-time seminar series; increasing collaborating among universities through overcoming some barriers in competitiveness; management of the Childhood Cognition and Learning Laboratory; duties and responsibilities implicated with funding, mentor, influence on personal mentoring, and insights into and styles of research based on mentoring; core research interests of 1) “cognitive development,” 2) “theory of mind,” and 3) ‘”future thinking and planning in children”; definition of “theory of mind”; definition of “future thinking and planning in children”; Maybe my Daddy give me a big piano:” The development of children’s use of modals to express uncertainty; and three most cited papers since 2,000: 1) Episodic future thinking, 2) The emergence of episodic future thinking in humans, and 3) My future self: Young children’s ability to anticipate and explain future states.

Keywords: cognitive development, Dr. Cristina Atance, episodic future thinking, episodic memory, experimental psychology, factive, mentor, modal, nonfactive, psychology, semantic memory, theory of mind, University of Ottawa.

1. You hold a number of positions. These include Associate Professor of psychology and director of graduate training in experimental psychology at the University of Ottawa. Within the graduate program of experimental psychology, you have two novel items of interest under your auspices, especially for building an intellectual community within an academic setting: 1) the newsletter Psynapse and 2) the lunch-time seminar series.  (Although, the online listing of presenters ended in 2011 for the lunch-time seminars.)  What does/did each cover?  How have you developed these separate items for the benefit of the graduate students?  What comes across as the majority feedback from graduate students?

Although the newsletter is no longer in circulation (it was an initiative undertaken by our former director, Dr. Cate Bielajew), the lunchtime seminar series is going strong! This, too, was an initiative taken by Dr. Bielajew that I have decided to continue because the student feedback has been so positive. Essentially, we provide students with the opportunity to listen to Experimental psychology PhDs (as opposed to Clinical PhDs) who have decided to work outside of academia. I think that this is really important given that, more and more, our graduates will need to/want to use their research skills and expertise in a variety of settings. Although these include academia, we have had speakers who work for the government, the RCMP, federal funding agencies (e.g., NSERC), private companies, hospitals, and school boards. They all have unique and inspiring stories about how they have used their PhDs in Experimental psychology in these various settings. Our current graduate students find their stories very helpful and come away with concrete ideas/tips about how to tailor their graduate training as a function of where they’d like to end up in their careers.

2. How might other psychology programs incorporate and improve upon these ideas to build such an intellectual community? From a provincial and national initiative perspective, rather than from within one university, how might multiple intra-/inter-provincial institutions partially dissolve barriers of competition – over quality students and funding, understandably – and facilitate more collaboration for the beneficial experience of graduate (and undergraduate) students across universities within Canada?

This may not directly answer your question but I think that many Universities both within and outside of Canada are “re-thinking” the PhD, so to speak. That is, we know that many of our students will not end up in strictly academic positions and, as such, I think that part of our job is to at least make them aware of their other options and, to the extent that we can (because we, ourselves, were trained as academics), provide them with some of the skills that will help them do so.

3. With Principal Investigator (PI) status of the Childhood Cognition and Learning Laboratory, you have time to manage overarching goals and research of the experimental psychology laboratory. How do you find the time spent in managing an experimental psychology laboratory?

By this, I’m assuming you mean how do I allot time to directing my research lab? It’s definitely a challenge to manage the various aspects of my academic position which include teaching, research, and administration. I love my research and the time that I get to spend with post-doctoral, doctoral, and undergraduate students. At present, I have a wonderful lab that I’m quite connected to (it’s down the hall from my office) and so I’m around it (and more importantly the students!) quite a bit. It’s however essential that I have a good team of people (including a part-time lab co-ordinator) with whom I can share the workload. Recruiting participants (in my case young children and their parents) is an especially challenging and time-consuming aspect of the job and this is something I need help with, along with the testing of participants, so that I can free up most of my time to think about new research directions, experimental designs, and writing grants, articles, and chapters.

4. In addition to this, and with an intimate linkage to duties and responsibilities implied by the laboratory and research grants, you mentor young researchers into the discipline of experimental psychology. First, who most mentored you?  Second, how did this influence your own mentoring?  Third, what insights into and styles of research does the task of mentoring provide for you?

I would consider both my PhD and post-doctoral advisors as my most significant mentors. These were Dr. Daniela O’Neill (PhD Advisor) at the University of Waterloo, and Dr. Andy Meltzoff (post-doc Advisor) at the University of Washington. Both were very meticulous and careful researchers who encouraged me to think about a lot of different angles of my research and experimental design. They are both also incredibly original and creative thinkers which I’m hoping has rubbed off on me! Because I was Dr. O’Neill’s first PhD student we spent a lot of time bouncing ideas off each other and deeply discussing the research (then, as now, it was focused on the development of future thinking ability in young children). I was fortunate to have this much time with her because in bigger labs one doesn’t always get the chance to have a lot of one-on-one time with their supervisor. Yet, I think this is critical. I don’t think I’d ever want a lab with so many students that I rarely get one-on-one time with each of them. In terms of my style of mentoring, I would say that in addition to trying to work quite closely with students, I also try (though probably need to improve in this respect!) to allow them to really develop their own ideas without interfering – at least initially – too much. Obviously, once it’s time to discuss these ideas and think critically about whether they can form the basis of sound experimental designs, then certain issues will need to be considered. At the same time, I think it’s also important for advisors/mentors to help our students understand that we don’t always have all the answers. That is, sometimes I get the impression that students think that we do and that we’re somehow holding out on them! But, science doesn’t work like that – that is, I don’t always know whether a design is going to work or what exactly we’re going to find but this keeps the process interesting! Sometimes the unexpected findings are the most interesting ones.

5. Moving into the area of core research interests, you have three: 1) “cognitive development,” 2) “theory of mind,” and 3) ‘”future thinking and planning in children.” For those without the background of graduate level research in experimental psychology, how would you define “cognitive development”?

When asked by acquaintances/friends what I study, I often say “children’s thinking and reasoning” (i.e., their cognitive development) and how it changes and develops during the preschool years.

6. With present research, how would you define “theory of mind”?

It really depends on how precise you want to be but, again, I sometimes define it as “perspective-taking.” That is, how we (and, in my area of study, children) think about/understand other people’s perspectives, as well as understand that their own past and future perspectives can differ from their current ones. I use the term “perspective” quite broadly to encompass physiological, emotional, and mental states. For example, when/how do children come to understand that although they may love a certain toy, another child may not; or, that they may know something (e.g., where a toy is hidden) that someone else does not. Appreciating these differences in perspectives is critical for interpreting and making sense of other people’s behaviour. In many cases, this will also help us to act empathically (e.g., if we know that our friend is afraid of dogs – even though we are not – we wouldn’t invite her to go to the dog park with us).

7. How would you define “future thinking and planning in children”?

By “future thinking,” I mean children’s capacity to think about future events – for example, if I ask you what you’re going to do tomorrow, next week, or even next year, you can respond to these questions by “mentally projecting” yourself, so to speak, into these scenarios (e.g., tomorrow I’m going to go to work and maybe stop by the coffee shop on my way in, etc.) and providing fairly detailed accounts of what you imagine you may be doing at these various time points. This process itself need not rely on planning but likely lies at the basis of people’s ability to plan. One of the fundamental questions I study is whether, like adults, children have this same capacity for “mental time travel.”

8. Your first publication in 2000 entitled Maybe my Daddy give me a big piano:” The development of children’s use of modals to express uncertainty studied “modal adjuncts to mark uncertainty.”  Modal terms consisting of “maybe, possibly, probably and might.” Other indications are factive contrasted with nonfactive words such as ‘understand’ (factive) contrasted with ‘consider’ (nonfactive).  You use the examples of “think” (factive) contrasted with “know” (nonfactive). You note adjuncts as among the earliest emergent properties from children’s language.  More to the point, you describe the lack of knowledge about modal use in children related to expressions of uncertainty.  Since the research almost a decade and half ago, what other things have research into children’s modal language development discovered about them?

This is actually not an area that I’ve followed or continued to do research in. Although the paper was framed in terms of children’s understanding of modals, I was particularly interested in whether they used these terms of uncertainty when talking about the future. My/our logic at the time is that if children were saying such things as I might get hungry or probably it’s going to rain then ,arguably, their thinking about the future must entail more than simply recounting routine past events. Otherwise, why would these future events be prefaced by markers of uncertainty or modals?

9. With regards to the three most cited pieces of your research program since 2000, Google Scholar rank orders from most cited to least cited for the top three: 1) Episodic future thinking, 2) The emergence of episodic future thinking in humans, and 3) My future self: Young children’s ability to anticipate and explain future states. Obviously, one common conceptualization of episodic future thinking. Your major contribution to the field of psychology.  You gave the generalized definition earlier in question ‘6.’.  I would like to cover each of these articles together and then alone.  What theme of evidence and theory best characterizes this particular strain of your own research?

One of the most important themes of these 3 articles is the focus on the specific ability to imagine/envision ourselves in the future (as opposed to thinking about the future more broadly), and its development in young children. This type of thought is such a fundamental and pervasive mental activity for humans. That is, we’re constantly thinking about the future – what we’ll have for dinner, where we’ll go on vacation, what we’ll do on the weekend, etc. – yet until recently we knew very little about this capacity both in adults and in children.


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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