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Allison Foertsch

Emotions color and control so much of what we do, and why. As we age—biologically, psychologically, socially—our emotional responses change and grow more complicated.

Exploring this vast, ever-shifting backdrop to human behavior is the passion of USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology doctoral student Allison Foertsch, who was recently awarded a 2012 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Fellowship. The GRFP awards $30,000 per a twelve-month Fellowship Year, and is funded for a maximum of three years.

“This is an amazing opportunity that will enable me to focus on research exclusively,” Foertsch said. “I was so pleased to have been admitted to a great research institute like USC, and to work with my mentor, Dr. Mara Mather. The addition of this fellowship is more than I could have ever asked for.”

Foertsch comes from an extensive research background and completed stints in Shirley McGuire’s Family Research Lab at the University of San Francisco (USF), Marisa Knight’s Emotion and Cognition Research Lab at USF, the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and, of course, Mara Mather’s Emotion and Cognition Research Lab at USC.

For her GRFP-funded research, Foertsch proposed a novel across-the-lifespan study testing arousal-biased competition (ABC) theory, developed by Mather and her graduate student, Matthew Sutherland, which seeks to explain how certain stimuli are “chosen” over others to create memories as well as investigating the effect of sleep on consolidation of these memories into long-term storage.

“Understanding why and how emotional arousal sometimes enhances and sometimes impairs memory, and how this changes across the lifespan, has wide application,” she said. “The brain is complicated, and learning about it has been fascinating.”

“Allie is not afraid to tackle new domains and pushes herself to learn new things. She has an infectious enthusiasm that makes her great at leading a research team,” said Mather. “I expect that she will be an influential researcher and educator in her future career.”

In fact, achieving her goals as both a researcher and educator is vitally important to Foertsch, a first-generation college student.

“I believe it is our responsibility as scientists to turn our research into communicable results. I hope to share my research in a way that engages people and motivates them to consider how science can translate into better lives,” Foertsch said. “I am truly honored and humbled to receive such a prestigious award. Many thanks to my mentors, my lab mates and collaborators, and my family.”

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