After earning a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science, Liz Toomarian faced two futures: either continue her work in research or become a school teacher.

“I had to decide if I wanted to be the only person doing neuroscience who was interested in education or be the only person in education interested in neuroscience,” she says.

Unable to choose between her two passions, she chose both. And that’s what led her to the Ed Psych program here at UW-Madison.

Now in her fifth year, Toomarian, 27, has earned her master’s degree through the department’s Human Development area and is now a dissertator, on the way to her PhD.

Currently, her work in the Educational Neuroscience Lab looks for ways to help young students who struggle with math.

She’s specifically interested in how students think about fractions spatially, such as how they imagine the placement of fractions on number lines. “The more we know about how and why some students struggle, the more we can help those who have trouble with fractions and provide alternate strategies for teaching about them and different strategies for learning about them,” says Toomarian.

She says dual research-and-classroom approach aims to answer questions like “What are people already doing in schools and what are their limitations and how can that help focus our research?” and “How can what we’re learning in the lab affect the classroom and how can the limitations of the classroom shape our research in the lab?”

To aid in her educational pursuits, Toomarian was able to secure a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which includes financial support for tuition and a stipend. “This has helped me not worry where I’m getting my funding from, so I can really focus on my research,” she says.

Many in the department see a bright future for Toomarian. “She’s very dedicated to drawing links between education and neuroscience, which will lead to a better understanding of the cognitive and neural mechanisms that impact learning,” says her advisor, Dr. Edward Hubbard. “I’m certain she’ll make a substantial impact in the emerging field of educational neuroscience that will enhance children’s learning at all levels.”

(Posted April 13, 2017)