For Ladan Ghazi Saidi, working at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is a dream come true.
Both of her parents were university professors in Tehran, and she spent a lot of time hanging out on campus as a child.
“That interaction with their colleagues, students and other staff really shaped my personality and goals in life,” said Ghazi Saidi, who knew at a young age that she wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps.
She got that opportunity in August 2017, when Ghazi Saidi joined UNK as an assistant professor in the department of communication disorders.
As a researcher, Ghazi Saidi specializes in cognitive science, neuropsychology, neuroscience, neuroimaging, aging, language processing and bilingualism. Her father Kiumars was a well-known researcher who studied tuberculosis and leprosy, two deadly bacterial diseases.
“I was inspired by his work and how research is important in the advancement of science,” Ghazi Saidi said.
Now, she’s the one making a name for herself in academia.
Her research team is investigating the benefits of bilingualism and its effects on healthy aging. Specifically, they’re looking at whether learning a new language at an older age can help maintain cognitive health and delay the onset of dementia.
“The most important lifetime advantage of speaking a second language is perhaps postponing the signs of dementia related to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease,” Ghazi Saidi said.
Why were you attracted to this research?
As a part-time job during my undergraduate studies, I worked as an English as a second language instructor. In my senior undergraduate year, during a session in my neuroscience course, my professor talked about how the brain functions when you speak a second language. I was just fascinated by what I heard. That talk inspired me to learn more about the subject and pursue my graduate studies in the field.
What are your biggest discoveries?
I am not sure if I can call them discoveries, but let’s say significant findings. My work showed for the first time that there is a dynamic interaction between the language network and the control network.
Also, I brought evidence that the insula is an important part of processing accent. Also, for the first time our team brought neuroimaging evidence that the brain of long-term bilinguals functions more efficiently than monolinguals in some cognitive tasks. Some examples are tasks such as those that require conflict management, inhibition of the inappropriate options and selection of the appropriate ones, and task switching.
How do you measure success as a researcher? What motivates you?
I have two measures. One is how close have I gotten to answering my research question. In research, sometimes we get to the answer pretty quickly – we conduct an experiment or survey, or measure a few outcomes, and within a few months we find the answer. An example is a summer project where we needed to know what percentage of older adults in Nebraska had access to the internet. It took a quick survey and less than two months to find almost 50% had access, which was more than we initially thought. But sometimes it takes years to answer important fundamental questions such as, “What factors contribute to healthy aging?” and over time you realize the question is more complicated than you had initially assumed it to be, and you come up with more questions than answers.
The second way to measure success is if I have been able to achieve some conventional measurable outcomes: number of publications, conference presentation of results, number of grants submitted and number of grants funded, peer recognition of research and so forth.
What are the qualities of a good faculty researcher?
I think the qualities that are necessary to be a good researcher, apart from being knowledgeable on the area of expertise, are to have an open mind, be flexible, be perseverant, work hard and for long hours and be rigorous and meticulous in the work you do. Two things I really value in a good researcher are a passion to learn and motivation to pursue the answer. We also need reliable and caring mentors – mentors who have paved the path and have a much deeper understanding of everything. Mentors can inspire you, help you grow as a person and improve your work through a mix of constructive criticism and encouragement.
What is your biggest strength as a researcher?
I think it’s perseverance. I don’t get discouraged by failure. I try to learn from my mistakes and find an alternative way to do things when plan A doesn’t work.
What’s the most enjoyable part of research? And the least enjoyable/most challenging part?
For me, the most enjoyable part of research is the interpretation of the results and interaction with peers. The least enjoyable is filling out the IRB forms. The most challenging part is to secure funding for the research.
How do you involve students in your research? Why is that important?
Students are an important part in progressing my research projects. I would not be able to do what I do without the help of student research fellows and student research assistants. Also, it is super important to train the next generation of researchers. In my field, there is a shortage of researchers.
How do you balance research and teaching? Do they benefit each other? In what way?
Well, with seven to eight courses a year, I have to be very diligent about my time management, even if research work creeps into my personal time. Teaching and research do benefit each other in my field. Also, training different students for research supports my own research work. I am lucky to teach in the area of my expertise, so my research and my teaching are as complementary as I can make them.
Describe a perfect day in the classroom/lab/field researching.
To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever had a perfect day. And that’s OK. Life is full of imperfections, and that’s what makes us motivated to make an effort to grow.
What stands out about UNK’s research programs?
Faculty support. The awesome support from the Office of Research Development. They are beyond helpful and supportive. Also, the Undergraduate Research Fellows program is wonderful, and the office does an awesome job. My department chair is fabulous. She could not be more helpful and more supportive of her faculty. I consider myself very lucky to work at UNK.
Ladan Ghazi Saidi
Title: Assistant Professor, Communication Disorders
Education: Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences: Neuropsychology, University of Montreal, 2012; Applied master’s, speech pathology and language disorders, McGill University, 2014; Master’s in translation studies, Azad University, Iran, 2004; Bachelor’s in biology, University of Tehran, Iran, 1998.
Years at UNK: 3
Areas of research/specialization: Cognitive science, neuropsychology, neuroscience, neuroimaging, aging (intervention and prevention), language processing, bilingualism