Former Second Century Initiative (2CI) Fellow Khalil Thompson is studying a branch of psychology that gives researchers a better understanding of the brain and social behavior in people who are anxious.
Thompson, from Sacramento, Calif., began his college career at Xavier University in New Orleans, where he received his bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in chemistry. He chose Georgia State for his Ph.D. program because of the university’s Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience program.
Thompson said he has been interested in psychology since he was in high school but has always wanted to learn more than just the basic theories of psychology. It is that desire that caused Thompson to pursue a doctorate degree in cognitive neuroscience, which allows him to examine relationships among behavior, emotion, and cognition, as well as brain function.
“Psychology broadly, without the neuroscience background behind it, is almost, in a sense, a guessing game. You’re working off self-reporting from individuals who may not always be honest with you with what they’re experiencing,” he said. “When you look at neuroscience, you’re able to identify physical properties in the brain that you can target and that kind of decreases some of the uncertainty that you have about what you’re dealing with, in regard to a particular disorder.”
Thompson is studying ways in which social anxiety may lead to biased and maladaptive social cognition and behavior, and how brain activity during social interactions may vary between those with high and low levels of social anxiety. With the support of his co advisors, Dr. Jessica Turner and Dr. Erin Tone, Thompson is using MRI to conduct neuroimaging studies of how the brain responds when people make social decisions, such as whether to cooperate with others or not.
“The way in which we try to understand social anxiety and social decision making broadly, is through the use of what we call economic exchange tasks,” he said. “These are essentially interactive scenarios that allow two people to play a game and then analyze at least one of these individuals in a scanner.”
“When you typically look at social decision-making tasks, they usually only involve one individual. They’re not actually interacting with anybody else. You’re just using various stimuli in the environment that are going to elicit activity in regions that are involved in that process but we’re not certain that it can actually translate to a real social decision-making scenario.”
Thompson said receiving the 2CI Fellowship has helped him both financially and professionally.
“The fellowship has definitely helped me to avoid the typical salary of a graduate student, but it also allowed me to branch out with my research and reach people that I may not have met if I hadn’t been part of the fellowship,” he said.
In addition to the 2CI fellowship, Thompson also received a prestigious graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation.
After he earns his Ph.D., Thompson said he would like to work for a nonprofit that works towards understanding the neurological bases of psychiatric disorders.
For students interested in pursuing a doctorate degree or fellowship, Thompson has this advice: start early.
“Start preparing early by volunteering for research labs and different research summer programs. You want to get as much research experience and expertise as possible to develop your skills,” he said.
– Kiana Colquitt, Graduate Administrative Assistant, Office of the Provost