Student Spotlight: David Garavito

David Garavito

What is your area of research? 

In general, my area of research concerns cognitive theory and neuroscience, with a specific focus on neuroeconomics and decision-making. Currently, my immediate work focuses on the decision-making and perception of risks within the context of sports, as well as the cognitive and neural effects of concussive and sub-concussive injuries.

My research can possibly best be summarized in a simple anecdote: A football player is on the sideline during a major game. His coach asks the player if he wants to go in and play, and the player must now make a cost-benefit analysis. All athletes, of course, know that there is a chance of injury when they participate in their sport. This is especially true for football players and concussions, given the publicity. One study that I am currently publishing looks at the variables (e.g., past injuries) that may influence an athlete’s decision whether to play (and risk injury) or not.

Now, assume the athlete plays and ends up hitting her/his head such that they think they may have symptoms of a concussion. The athlete has to make another major decision: Do they report the symptoms to their coach and athletic trainer? If the athlete does report the symptoms, many state laws now require the athlete to come out of the game. How would his feelings be affected if there is a professional or college scout in the audience? The decision may be affected if that athlete wants to impress someone, so that she/he can become a professional athlete or obtain a college scholarship. Another study, which we presented at the Society for Medical Decision Making, investigates what factors may influence an athlete’s intention to report symptoms of concussions. In this study, we used fuzzy-trace theory (FTT) to examine developmental aspects of cognition, such as endorsement of bottom-line healthy principles and thinking about risks categorically (i.e., some risk of brain damage vs. no risk of brain damage as opposed to detailed and deliberate calculations of risk). Additionally, an athlete’s basic knowledge of concussions and pressure from peers may influence their decision to report symptoms.

Regardless of whether the athlete reports her/his concussion, the symptoms themselves have to be dealt with in the short-term. While this may surprise some, there is still a lack of knowledge about the immediate effects of concussions. For example, the undergraduates on my team recently presented data to the Society for Neuroeconomics that indicates a greater number of concussions leads to greater impulsivity. The effects of head injuries on decision-making has always been a very interesting topic of research to me.

Lastly, in addition to the short-term effects of concussions, there has recently been a great deal of focus on long-term consequences of being exposed to repeated head impacts. Many athletes face a growing fear that they may develop neurodegenerative diseases, such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has a well-publicized relationship to concussions. However, even with the publicity, we have limited tools for efficiently diagnosing any individual with CTE. Currently, I am working with Dr. Valerie Reyna and Dr. Charles Brainerd to develop efficient and reliable methods of diagnosing CTE, using advanced memory modeling techniques based on FTT. Drs. Reyna and Brainerd have used these techniques in research on Alzheimer’s Dementia, another well-known neurodegenerative disease. Furthermore, as a law student, I am very interested in applying the research on decision-making to the field of law to see how legal experts adapt to individuals who exhibit abnormal decision-making abilities.

What inspired you to choose this field of study? 

As an alumnus of the University of Michigan, I have always been a huge fan of college football. This, plus a love of boxing and other contact sports, led me to inquire about the intersection of judgment and decision-making in competitive sports. Of course, this was also around the time that concussions and CTE started getting a lot of attention, so it all just came together. Fortunately, Dr. Valerie Reyna, my advisor, was very excited about this work too, coming from a family of boxing fans herself.

Why is this research important? 

Of course, one major reason that this work is important is that it affects almost every athlete or former athlete on almost every level. The issue of concussions does not affect only football players nor only professional athletes. Further, any parent or prospective parent undoubtedly worries about how a certain sport may affect their child (and I have talked to quite a few about this very topic). Additionally, the other major group of individuals affected by this research is military veterans. Many veterans come home after being exposed to multiple blast-related concussions, and not only do they need to worry about problems like CTE, but I believe that the effects of these head and brain injuries could have serious negative effects on them, preventing them from effectively returning to civilian life. Lastly, on a more theoretical point, I believe that learning more about how abnormal circumstances or events influence our cognition can teach us more about how we act and think normally.

How has your background influenced your scholarship? 

As the son of two very hardworking educators, I have always tried to approach any major problem with maximum effort and from every angle possible. As my parents both teach in biological sciences, whereas my undergraduate education focused mostly on social sciences, I have tried to view problems from different perspectives and tried to see the connecting threads between different theories from different fields.

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar? 

My loving older sister has actually influenced my thinking in general, but also my research and scholarship. Having a physical disability her entire life, it made me quite upset as a child when I saw how she was treated by others. Often times the most frustrating parts involved small things that could be easily addressed but were overlooked by most as unimportant (often because, to most people, these small things were not obstacles at all). I strive to find the places where research can reach those who do not have a voice as loud as the general public. As much as I am a theory-focused scientist, there is a great happiness I experience when I know that I can help the people who need it but are often not factored into the grand equation.

I understand you recently received an Engaged Graduate Student Grant for a community engaged project. Congratulations! Can you describe the focus of your project? 

My Engaged Graduate Student Grant has given me the opportunity to explore two main goals: First, I seek to increase knowledge about concussions, CTE, and head injuries in general but I would also like to translate this knowledge into fun and educational programs for children of all ages. Our research illuminates the types of variables, such as age, values, and socioeconomic status, that may predispose a person to take risks regarding concussions, as I described earlier. One big problem with public policy right now is that, while concussion education in sports is mandatory in all states, very few states have clear, let alone sufficiently high, standards for these educational programs. Further, many people tend to forget that a large amount of problems that derive from head injuries (and lacking in sports education)? fall disproportionately on low-income individuals and school systems that are not able to afford full-time athletic trainers, modern equipment, or state of the art concussion testing equipment. Not only have we worked with the College Discovery Program of the Ithaca Youth Bureau to make affordable and understandable curricula for middle school and high school students, but our research will eventually lead to development of full curricula that we hope will be able to be distributed widely with little to no cost to coaches, athletic programs, and school systems.

The second goal involves CTE, both in terms of better understanding the disease and creating affordable diagnostic methods using special memory tests. As I described earlier, Drs. Brainerd and Reyna have used memory modeling techniques, using memory data, to make breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s research. Many biological tests that are used for diseases like Alzheimer’s and CTE can be very invasive and cost much more than most people can afford. Memory tests are much simpler and can be easily run at little cost. CTE is also an interesting and scary disease because onset occurs much earlier than it does in Alzheimer’s or other dementias; sometimes it is even found in undergraduates. Using data from local universities, colleges, and high schools, I am using these cutting-edge techniques to develop diagnostic methods that will be more affordable and available to all.

What opportunities will this grant provide for you that you perhaps wouldn’t have had access to otherwise? 

This grant provides amazing resources that allow me to connect with students, alumni, and community programs quite easily. Through this support and structure, my undergraduate team and I have interacted with many community groups, such as the Ithaca Youth Bureau and local high schools. Further, the resources have allowed us present our research at international national conferences, including those for the Association for Psychological Science and the Society for Neuroeconomics.

Any advice for other graduate students interested in applying for fellowships or grants? 

My best advice would be to start early, even if it’s just discussing potential projects with members of your committee. Constant discussion and feedback, even of hypothetical projects, can help a researcher learn about the numerous complexities that come with designing a full project. Going off of that, I feel that graduate students should not be afraid to branch out and explore topics that may not, at first, seem related to their main focus. Many times, talks with other students and professors in different research areas have inspired me and led me to develop studies that I never would have thought of before.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree? 

Cornell actually had the perfect program for me right from the start. During applications, my main goal was finding a J.D./Ph.D. program at a school that had great programs in both law and psychology. As if this wasn’t hard enough, due to the small amount of J.D./Ph.D. programs overall, I also wanted to find faculty in psychology whose research focused on judgment and decision-making. To my surprise, one school checked all the boxes, and now I’m here.

What’s next for you? 

Currently, I’m in my 1L year of law school, as a 3rd year J.D./Ph.D., so I’m only halfway through the program. During the rest of my time here, I will continue my current research but also expand out to include other variables that may influence a person’s judgment and decision-making, such as socioeconomic status and race. However, once I do finish, I plan on staying in academia. I hope that I can find either a psychology department or a law school that will allow me to express my passions for both teaching and research.

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School