Faculty Pub Night with Kayoko Okada: What You Missed

Kayoko Okada at Faculty Pub Night 2017
Faculty Pub Night Speaker Kayoko Okada

Students, faculty, staff, and more occupied every available chair that was in the room; some had even conceded to sitting on the ground. Students leaned forward in their chairs, heads tilted to listen as they scribbled down notes. Faculty sat with maybe their chin resting in their hand or leaned back with their fingers entangled as they listened intently to the speaker. This is Faculty Pub Night, a special monthly event hosted by our library in which LMU faculty members are chosen to discuss their most recently published work or project.

The first speaker of the 2017-2018 series was Kayoko Okada, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts discussing her recent project, an fMRI Study of American Sign Language. On the library’s faculty pub night page, they describe Okada’s research as investigating “the neural organization of language using functional neuroimaging (fMRI)”.

“Unlike hearing people, native deaf signers who use American Sign Language (ASL) receive language through the visual domain and they use manual/motor system for language output. In other words, input and output systems for language are different between hearing and ASL populations. How then, do input and output systems overlap in ASL subjects? How different, or alike, is the neural organization for language between these two populations? Furthermore, is the neural representation for manual gestures used linguistically (ASL signs) different than manual gestures used non-linguistically?” stated the website.

Audience at Faculty Pub Night
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In FMRI experiments, Okada addressed these question and found many surprising answers such as that the arrangement of language in both hearing and deaf people are very similar and even though one language is audible and another is visual, they both show up pretty much the same on brain scans in the language areas.

Most of the students in the audience seemed to be majoring in psychology and had a class with Dr. Okada. Among all of the ones I encountered, said they really enjoyed the program and would definitely come again. One thing I noticed was how fascinated and engaged everyone seemed. Whenever there was a dull moment in Dr. Okada’s speech, a hand always shot up to fill the space with a question.

Okada was in the midst of graduate school at John Hopkins University when she was first introduced to the world of neuro studies. She actually had started in Mathematics, but also really enjoyed psychology.

“It was around that time that neuroimaging was becoming really big,” said Okada. “I was in a grad seminar and I just became totally fascinated with brain imaging and I thought ‘Wow! I’m taking all these advanced math classes and I don’t really like them that much. Studying the brain is far more interesting!’”

After coming to this conclusion, Dr. Okada’s work at John Hopkins fortunately came to an end and she was able to return to California where she started working with brain imaging, memory, and language.

Fun fact, when Dr. Okada says that when she first saw pub night she didn’t know what it was but thought it was a fantastic idea. “I thought it would just be a small group of faculty taking to each other about our research while drinking beer. Then i realized it’s just me talking about my research,” said Dr. Okada.

“It was interesting to see how many people even showed up. I think it’s cool that it’s faculty from our school talking and not just random people that we may never see again,” said Lauren Brandon, a sophomore psychology major. Around 97 people showed up to this event, which is two times the average amount of audience members that faculty pub nights usually receive. “It’s a different idea of things you can study with psychology and also just to hear about sign language.”

Senior psychology major Natalie Pita said, “It’s very interesting to look at ASL versus other languages because you’d think you’d be using different parts of the brain because you’re not physically speaking but it turns out it’s pretty similar.” Pita is Okada’s research assistant and came to hear more about the research she does outside of their projects. “The most powerful thing Dr. Okada said was that ‘Language is language’. A lot of people look at language as a barrier but if you get down to the science of it, the same parts of our brains are working whether they’re speaking or not,” said Pita.

Jaida MacklinToday’s post was written by library student ambassador Jaida Macklin. Jaida is sophomore English and theatre arts double major from the south suburbs of Chicago. She is currently on the midst of writing a book which she constantly procrastinates working on.