UMass Boston

First Year PhD Student Candice Koolhaas Named a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow

05/14/2024| Sandra Mason

Koolhaas’ research focuses on how people exert mental effort in everyday life.

Candice Koolhaas NDSEG Fellowship

Candice Koolhaas, a first-year Developmental and Brain Sciences PhD student has received a 2024 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) award from the U.S. Department of Defense. The coveted award provides three years of funding that includes tuition, a monthly stipend, and additional funds for research and travel expenses.

The financial support will enable Koolhaas to dedicate more time towards her research projects. Her research has also earned her an honorable mention from the National Science Foundation's prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP). 

As part of the Early Minds Lab, a group interested in how cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and planning develop across the lifespan, Koolhaas’ research explores the mental effort people use in day-to-day life activities.  

When she interviewed at UMass Boston last year, Professor of Psychology Zsuzsa Kaldy immediately knew Koolhaas was an exceptionally talented and motivated student. 

“Most admitted students come to our program with a master's degree in cognitive science or neuroscience. But Candice, who was a senior undergraduate at the time, could talk about her research interests in such depth and asked such interesting questions about our ongoing research, that it was clear that she was ready to embark on her doctoral studies," Kaldy said. 

Not having a master's before beginning her PhD program was not the only non-traditional aspect of Koolhaas’ path to becoming a scientist. After graduating from high school, she spent five years working in health food stores and daycares before deciding to enroll at a local community college.  

A favorite hobby, reading classic fiction by authors with different perspectives, helped Koolhaas recognize the passion that now drives her work—a desire to understand how the mind works. After reading Daniel Dennett’s The Mind’s I, she knew it was time to transfer to Eastern Connecticut State University (Eastern) to study psychology. 

At Eastern, she worked in the Laboratory of Cognition, Attention and Search with Psychological Science Professor Lyndsey Lanagan-Leitzel. She loved the experience, and knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life asking questions, designing experiments, and sharing her discoveries. 

UMass Boston’s Developmental and Brain Sciences PhD program was a top choice for Koolhaas because her research goals aligned with the faculty in the cognitive neuroscience concentration. With support from her co-mentors Kaldy and Psychology Professor Erik Blaser, she was able to jump right into conducting research. 

“Many experiments in cognitive psychology involve tasks and tests that are different from experiences we encounter in the real world. In my research, I aim to make my experiments more naturalistic by turning them into tablet-based games. Since most children and adults have some experience playing games on devices, our experiments are familiar and fun, making them great for assessing functions like attention, effort, and memory,” said Koolhaas.  

Similar to the way pupils dilate or constrict in response to lighting levels, pupils also change in response to how hard a person is thinking. Koolhaas uses eye-tracking software to record changes in diameter of participants’ pupils to measure the mental effort they are using to engage in the tablet-based activities. 

This method of data collection provides information about how people make strategic decisions about when and how much mental effort to invest in a task. Koolhaas explains, “I am interested in discovering when adults and children use mental effort— even when they don’t need to—and why most of us would rather choose the option that requires the least effort. These sorts of questions allow us to learn about how cognitive functions are used in our daily lives, where we often have opportunities to choose an easier option like writing a shopping list versus memorizing the list, which requires more effort.”   

“Candice’s excitement about research is contagious and her interests are broad, which is great for a young scientist. Professor Blaser and I are proud of her, and delighted at the recognition she has been earning for her work including the NSDEG Fellowship and the GRFP Honorable Mention,” said Kaldy.   

Visit the Early Minds Lab to learn more and to view opportunities to participate in research studies.