Ziyong studies aging, specifically age related changes in human cognition, a field she’s been interested from a young age. “I grew up in China with my grandparents, and living in an Asian community where there is a positive association with aging made me very interested in aging and cognition changes.” When she came to the U.S. for her undergraduate work in 2008, she quickly discovered a different purview on aging from her fellow undergrads here. Her research on aging began then and there.
She pursued aging research throughout her undergraduate years and applied to a wide variety of graduate programs in psychology and neuroscience. (She left Mills College with dual degrees in Psychology and Music with an emphasis on musicology and music performance.) She recalls, “Michigan has one of the top psychology programs in the country. When I came to visit, I really liked the program here, there was so much to offer.”
Currently a 4th year doctoral candidate, Ziyong has started defining the prospectus for her dissertation. She proposes to examine attention in younger and older adults and the different factors that may influence attention, specifically motivations via monetary incentives that vary depending on context or age groups. More specifically, she examines different components of attention through a modified Continuous Temporal Expectancy Tasks which measure people’s sustaining attention and ability to resist distractions. She explains, “There are different abilities in paying attention in the sense that people may be able to do one well but not the others. I’m trying to determine whether incentives or motivations may impact one type of attention and not the others, if age group differences matter and if they are swayed by one or the other. There are so many factors that may come into play.”
She is scientifically interested in attentions and cognitions in general, thinking about incentive structures and motivational tools, to determine the right incentive structure and how to motivate people. This topic mainly focuses on young adults, but Ziyong thinks there is a lot more that can be done on aging and older adults. She states, “For really long run implications, this research may help to understand what are better incentive structures to help people perform better in the long run and what different components of attention come into play and how different motivations may affect them one way or another.”
Ziyong works in two labs because she has two advisors, Professors Cindy Lustig and Patricia Reuter-Lorenz. She declares, “I’m lucky that I have such amazing faculty to work with. They are very supportive and are leading researchers in our field. Having the opportunity to be trained in this situation, I feel like I’m extremely fortunate.” The large psychology department is broken down into nine different sub-disciplines, and her field, cognition and conative neuroscience (CCN), is a small one. She loves it, though: “We have our own area, and I really like it. The grad students are amazing; they are very collaborative and supportive here.
Her department is one component of U-M that has been a great space for Ziyong: “Graduate school has been a great experience. In addition to the exciting science aspect, I get so much support from the graduate school; it is surprising how much support I get from Rackham. I tell recruits about the support from Rackham and from the department, it’s a really great balance. I’m so impressed with the funding and security and love the chance to teach and interact with undergrads. Rackham has many kinds of grants – Rackham research grants for pre-candidates and candidates, and also every year a conference travel grant – that’s something that makes this program really unique in that it really encourages graduate students to develop and do the research that they want. For this part I’m extremely grateful. That is unique about Michigan.”
Hoping for a career in academia, Ziyong wants to continue to do research and engage with undergrads, partially because she really enjoys teaching. She continues, “To do that, I may need a postdoc position to better prepare myself or a research scientist position to get a little more experience. U-M has prepared me well, but to achieve my goals I still need more training. My ultimate goal is going back to China to teach. That’s where home is. This is an exciting time in China – the research is really growing. Psychology is still a new area of research in there and I think it would be very exciting to join the force.”
Teaching has been a significant highlight of her graduate school experience, and she’s had many opportunities to grow and reflect on what that means to her personally and professionally. She describes, “I’ve had a really great time teaching at U-M. I believe that always the best way to learn is to teach. When I first came to Michigan my funding included five terms of teaching. As a female international student, more advanced graduate students warned us about negative stereotypes with Asian woman GSIs who are not teaching in their first language. Talking with them was really helpful. I myself learned a lot through this process. I’ve learned about classroom culture, different students, and the completely different ways that you convey materials. In passing knowledge, I hope this has been a good experience for undergrads I’ve taught. Many may not have met International students like me and it has been great to play a different role in the classroom, because I have been a student for a really long time. These are very important steps to see who I am and who I want to be, especially when you come from a different background. You learn what makes you comfortable, them comfortable, and find common ground. I have been able to teach very amazing students the over years, and some became my research assistants.”
A 2016/2017 Barbour Scholarship recipient, Ziyong heard about the Barbour Scholar program before setting foot on campus. “It is very prestigious, and I heard about it before I came to study here. I’m extremely honored and fortunate to have received the award. When talking about the 2017 centennial celebration of the Barbour Scholarship, Ziyong says, “I feel very fortunate to be a part of this amazing tradition. I’m very curious about the stories of past scholars. Being part of this program will provide the opportunity to see how other women came along. Even though it is much easier than it used to be for International students, there still are a lot of challenges. I can only imagine what life was like for the early scholars and find it inspiring to see how people decided to come to another continent to pursue their dreams.”
Music still plays a big part of Ziyong’s life. She’s played flute with three of the six main orchestras on campus and loves attending events featured at the School of Music, Theatre and Dance or at UMS. She elaborates, “We have this wonderful Hill Auditorium, and UMS offers great student tickets. I’m really happy with the art and music scenes in Ann Arbor.” She is also active in the Chinese student community, participating in a weekly Chinese Culture Salon where students take turns sharing things they’re good at. She’s given several talks in forum and always kicks off the academic year with a talk on recommended musical performances to attend.