An Ambitious Undertaking

by Robert Bradford

Alan Hartley

For the past three decades, Professor Alan Hartley and Scripps students have focused on an ambitious undertaking—they want to understand cognitive changes in the aging process and how older adults process everything from emotions to short-term memories. The implications of their research are far-reaching: should pilots over 60 be allowed to fly? How can we develop devices for the elderly to help them be safer drivers?

Hartley, the Molly Mason Jones Professor of Psychology, has guided the student body’s transformation toward undergraduate research during his 37 years at the College; he has seen uncertain undergraduates enter his lab and emerge as accomplished researchers who have gone on to thrive in fields ranging from medicine to technology to academia.

For Hartley, undergraduate research at Scripps challenges students to ask big-picture questions and fosters skills they simply wouldn’t learn in the traditional classroom experience. Research is increasingly becoming part of the overall emphasis for Scripps students—today, 100 percent of students work on a specific research project beyond the senior thesis during their four years at the College.

“Research thrives at a place like Scripps, and it’s all about context,” says Hartley. “People often think large universities have a lock on research, but that’s not the case. The difference between Scripps and larger institutions is money and scale; at Scripps, we find the questions that can be answered using our resources, and we engage our students in very individual and meaningful ways.”

Through these projects, Hartley says Scripps students develop the ability to manage teams, focus on the myriad details of an experiment, and gain new insights into human behavior.

Students perform experiments with elderly volunteers from the Claremont community in Hartley’s lab in the basement of Steele Hall. While their focus is to understand fundamental changes in the brain and behavior through the process, Hartley’s teams have also done consulting work for Boeing on the age and proficiency of older pilots, as well as research for the Nissan Corporation on identifying the need for warning sensors on side-view mirrors for elderly drivers.

Hartley emphasizes, however, that the research experience provides students with insights well beyond the science of aging.

“It’s a wonderful dynamic to see our students interacting with older adults. They learn so much about how to deal with people and how to at once be professional and personal,” he says. “Our students and the volunteers really connect and enjoy their time together.”

Many of Hartley’s students have left the laboratory to pursue their own research projects; he cites Deborah Little ’97, who came to the lab in a circuitous way. Little was a superb soccer goalie at Scripps until she suffered two broken bones on the field. Reeling from her injury and searching for new outlets, Little initially assisted in Hartley’s lab, coding questionnaires, before quickly taking on new responsibilities.

“I saw in Deborah someone who had a high level of energy and commitment that was tied to her sports background,” Hartley says. “She became the lab manager and went on to earn a doctorate from Brandeis University in three years.” Today, Little serves as the neuroimaging and genetics core leader at Texas A&M University, where she guides research into the biological foundations of a predisposition to mental health problems and treatment outcomes in veterans by using genetics and advanced imaging procedures.

Hartley is quick to point out not all of his students pursue careers in research or the sciences. Gillian Varney ’14, his current lab manager, came to Scripps thinking she wanted to pursue a degree in neuroscience. While she has thrived in the lab setting, she has since changed her major to history. The analytical skills she learned in Hartley’s lab have been put to good use, however, most notably in her internship at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York, where she collaborated across departments to value high-end fine art and furniture collections.

“The skills I learned in Professor Hartley’s lab, interacting with diverse groups of people, have been invaluable for my internships, because the work I do is people-centric,” Varney says. “I communicate directly with select clients, dealers, and specialists to accomplish my work. The skills from the lab translate well in the arts field.”

Hartley has heard these kinds of stories time and time again during his tenure at Scripps. He says he came to the College because he was committed to the idea of interdisciplinary scholarship, and he has taught courses in fields ranging from intellectual history to neuroscience.

“I graduated from Wesleyan, and I truly valued the liberal arts experience,” he says. “After I received my doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, I wanted to find a place where I could pursue research on my terms and teach interesting students. Scripps was the right fit.”

Hartley believes a new generation of Scripps professors will continue to expand the focus on undergraduate research and involving students in their projects: “Younger faculty comes in, and research is part of their model,” he says. “They’re going to be productive in a small liberal arts college, and that’s tied to teaching and pursuing their research interests.”