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‘Radiologists Might not Notice Tumors on X-rays if They Are Looking for a Rib Fracture’

Frol Sapronov

Holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from HSE University. First-year student of the HSE master’s programme Cognitive Sciences and Technologies: From Neuron to Cognition. Senior research fellow at the Laboratory for Cognitive Psychology of Digital Interface Users and visiting lecturer at the HSE University School of Psychology.

HSE researcher Frol Sapronov believes that doing science, for all its complexity and seriousness, should be fun. He told the HSE Young Scientists project how he researches dyslexia in adults and why he tries not to be offended by criticism of his work.

How I decided to go into science

It happened by itself. From early childhood, I told my parents that I would be a scientist. At first they laughed because kids say all kinds of things, but I was consistent. I became interested in biology at school and took part in Academic Olympics. Then I said, ‘Give me a microscope’ and, later, ‘I want bottles for experiments’. Even as a school student I was serious about becoming a scientist, only at some point I switched from biology to psychology.

I was born and raised in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and left the island at the age of 16 because I entered a school affiliated with Novosibirsk University. After graduating, I entered the HSE University School of Psychology. There, I learned that HSE has a Laboratory for Cognitive Psychology of Digital Interface Users. I found this interesting. I also fit right in there because I had originally studied biology. I started out as an intern. By my sophomore year they hired me on and after that I settled in for good.

The subject of my research

My laboratory studies how interaction with digital devices affects the way cognitive processes flow. I originally joined this lab because I had already begun thinking as a first-year student about what could potentially bring me money in the future. The field examining interaction with digital products seemed promising to me. (This line of research really does have applied aspects. For example, at the lab we sometimes study the ease of use of different websites.) I approached the head of the laboratory, Elena Gorbunova, and said, ‘I don’t know anything, but I want to do my research under your supervision’. To this day, she is still my research advisor.

In my current research, we are learning how to make interfaces more inclusive. My thesis was on how people with dyslexia interact with websites. In addition, under a grant from the Russian Science Foundation, my team and I are studying categorisation—that is, how a person combines objects into groups, stores them in memory and can locate them.

What I take pride in

I am most proud of the fact that I managed to publish an article in a journal during the first quarter of my undergraduate studies. For me, this is a personal victory in that I was able to carry out a good study, put it into writing, respond to the comments of reviewers and publish it. The article was about banner blindness and how the emotional content of banners influences their perception.

When we began to analyse the results, it turned out that emotionally neutral banners were more easily remembered. Apparently, we are learning how to work with the Internet environment and we know that something bold, emotional and conspicuous is advertising. The less it looks like conventional advertising, the higher the likelihood that we will be able to remember, see and internalise it. This is a tip for marketing professionals. Of course, if they now start doing exclusively neutral advertising, it will also become inconspicuous. On the other hand, this is interesting evidence of how our psyche works: people very quickly assess what they need and don’t need to pay attention to.

Photo: HSE University

My current work

I hope that my research into dyslexia goes well. It may have some social value: for example, to help further adapt educational materials for people with a similar disorder. In the modern approach, dyslexia is not just about difficulty in reading; it is about a deficit in cognitive processes, which is also expressed, for example, in how people acquire a skill of some kind.

Normally, when we repeat something 10 times, the skill becomes automated, but people with dyslexia have an automation deficit. This really grabbed me and I came up with a rather interesting, unconventional study that we have begun carrying out.

Now we need to put together a sample group, but it isn’t easy. We are trying to collaborate with colleagues from different laboratories and share our findings. The fact is that even 10–15 years ago there was no such thing as a ‘learning disorder’ at all, and now diagnostics mainly concerns schoolchildren and kindergarteners. We need adults who have dyslexia.

It is hard to find them not only in Russia, but also internationally. Adults should know this about themselves. They can go their entire lives without realising that they have dyslexia. Outgrowing the period when it is most noticeable, they acquire adaptation skills. Once they start working, it is no longer so important for them how well they read because in some professions it no longer matters.

My dream

I dream about becoming an authority in science so that my work can guide others and have significance. My dream is to work at an international level, to publish in good foreign journals and to attend conferences abroad where I would interact with colleagues. For me, science is also about communicating with others. We should coordinate our research and build on each other’s work.

Not so much as a scientist as simply a person in education, I want science to become more accessible, more understandable to people in general because I have often seen that many people don’t understand why we need science and what it does.

Scientists who set the standard for me

Jeremy Wolfe is a scientist who does a lot of work in visual perception and attention. He studies very interesting phenomena and shows how they work in real life and how they can interfere. For example, radiologists might not notice tumors on x-rays if they are looking for a broken rib because they aren’t focused on that. Or a motorist can hit a motorcyclist because his attention is scattered due to the simultaneous influence of many factors: speed, music in the cabin, a phone ringing, and so on. The psyche can’t cope with the overload.

Among my teachers, I look primarily to Maria Falikman, who was long the head of the HSE University School of Psychology. She has published numerous articles and authored several textbooks.

And Anne Treisman, creator of one of the most influential theories in psychology, the feature integration theory. I am very interested in how she came up with her ideas, how she developed them. The most interesting thing is that she came to one discovery before neuroscientists did.

A typical day for me

I try to get up early. I feed the cat, study if I have early classes, or I start right in to work. I don’t have a rigid structure because the tasks are always different. Sometimes I just read a lot of material and write up a summary for myself; sometimes I come up with ways to design research; sometimes I have to analyse data; and sometimes I respond to reviewers’ comments.

I usually come to the laboratory, write up a list of things to do and plan my day accordingly. The only constant is that every Friday I teach classes to second-year undergraduates. I teach a seminar on cognitive psychology in which we cover all cognitive processes, from sensations to metacognition.

For me, science is primarily about development —and not only of scientific knowledge and technology, but in general of people as a society and of us as individuals, because many things that have become commonplace for us—from vaccines to household chemicals—come from the sciences.

It seems to me that good, high-quality science that can be trusted will dispel myths and generally improve people’s lives.

For me, science is also about learning something new in very small steps, but reaching major discoveries—even if by accident, as sometimes happens.

The thought of leaving science makes me uncomfortable. This is a big part of my life and without it I probably wouldn’t feel like myself anymore.

If I hadn’t become a scientist

I would most likely have gone into UX research. Yandex, Sberbank, Mail.ru, VK, and various agencies that provide these services have such departments. Or I would work in HR. In my second year, I did an internship in the HR department at Adidas. I liked it, but I realised that I couldn’t juggle the lab, my studies and Adidas all at the same time, so I left.

Fortunately, while I am not yet an independent, fully mature scientist with a high salary, the university gives me various scholarships. This gives me the opportunity to do science without having to study at the same time, to work in a laboratory without having to earn extra money somewhere else.

Photo: HSE University

What I think about the ethics of science

We now have the resources to do science ethically. For example, we have ways to study the brain without having to remove it from our heads, and in my opinion, this gives us even more opportunities than if we were able to physically delve into it as we would like to do. New techniques and devices become available: we already have not only MRIs, but also the newer fNIRS machines. The desire to overcome difficulties stimulates science to develop.

It is clear that people didn’t always know about ethics, but the days of the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments are over. I have a feeling that now science is striving for beneficence. In any case, the community of psychologists, neuroscientists and linguists that I belong to almost always acts out of a desire to help: if we do this or that, we will be able to diagnose something at an earlier stage or make the digital environment more accessible for older people.

My favourite place in Moscow

I don’t go out to hip places often because I have so much work to do. But I like to work in the Skuratov coffee houses on Taganskaya and Myasnitskaya Streets.

How I deal with burnout

When people ask me what my job is, I never say that I am a scientist; I say that I am a researcher because there is less fanfare associated with the word.

Sometimes I wake up with the thought: ‘Why do I need all this? or: ‘That’s it. Enough! Why struggle so much?’ But lately, I’ve come to realise that if you eat well, sleep well and exercise (as my parents told me), it really does help. I have the desire to do something.

It also helps to talk with my co-workers, almost all of whom experience similar things. I can discuss this with them and we support each other.

Science sometimes lacks positive feedback because it is built on criticism. You write an article and first your research advisor and then the reviewer criticises it, then someone refers to it by saying you are wrong. Then you go to a conference and show everyone saying, ‘Look how good I am, I did the research’ and they respond with: ‘But it seems to us that you got this particular thing wrong’.

You have to keep in mind that you are not at fault, that this is just part of the job. The whole point of science is to criticise each other, look for weaknesses and try to fix them. But, on the other hand, you need to understand that what you are doing is not just for fun. Okay, you were criticised, but you’ve written an article. Or else it seems that you haven’t accomplished anything and get tired of it all, but still, look at how much research you’ve learned to do. Such things are helpful and encouraging, but for me the main thing has always been that science is, of course, difficult and serious, but it should also be fun and interesting.

This is why I like to stick a funny meme into my presentation, post something humorous, joke around with friends and co-workers. I try not to forget about real life and remind myself that not everyone wants to hear about my research on neurons and that sometimes I can go have a laugh with friends and that I don’t always have to stay up late working in the lab.

Photo: HSE University

My interests besides science

I like to go out walking with friends or alone and listening to music. I also love all living things, so I have several house plants. I like to examine the leaves, spray them with water, add fertiliser and in general keep them healthy. I recently got a cat, a domestic friend who doesn’t talk but who manages to destroy the apartment. By the way, the cat has badly damaged the flowers. The flowers used to occupy the entire window sill, but now only the hardiest remain.

Advice for budding scientists

Don’t be afraid to start, and the sooner the better. Scientific ability comes as you work. Until you plan and conduct a real experiment yourself, you have only an abstract idea of how it is done. Until you get a lot of incomprehensible numbers yourself that will need to be turned into data for analysis and then analysed, you won’t understand data analysis. You shouldn’t be afraid to come to the laboratory, ask to take on projects and then try your hand at them.

It is also important to be proactive, to ask for explanations because all your coworkers were also once dopey students for whom everything was scary and incomprehensible. Now they have become mature scientists, and almost everyone is happy to explain things to you; this is the continuity of generations.

What I have watched recently

I like the ironic sitcoms of the Russian new wave: Vampires of the Temperate Zone and The Last Minister. I want to come home and watch something light and to laugh.

Why I love Sakhalin

I love my island homeland very much. I have always been accustomed to living near the sea, to having hills right in town, to fish, seafood and snowy winters. I love being near the sea. I know how to snowboard because in my childhood we had a ski resort right next door.

On the mainland, as they call it on Sakhalin, many things are different and surprising. I’ve already lost some of the slang I spoke on Sakhalin because no one here understands it. The only downside is that Sakhalin is very far from Moscow. We didn’t travel much when I was little simply because it was expensive even to fly to Moscow.