Graduate student working in Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute laboratory selected to attend Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences

Nina Lauharatanahirun

Nina Lauharatanahirun

Nina Lauharatanahirun, a Virginia Tech doctoral student in psychology who is doing her research at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, was recently selected to attend the Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences. Lauharatanahirun is one of 450 promising young scientists selected out of thousands of applicants to attend the prestigious meeting in Germany from August 19 to August 24. She will be the only student from Virginia Tech to attend the meeting.

Lauharatanahirun is not a traditional economist. She’s a researcher who studies how the human brain makes decisions. That’s why, she said, the Lindau meeting is such an extraordinary opportunity for her.

“The event will give me the chance to pose questions and participate in discussion with some of the greatest minds in science,” Lauharatanahirun said.

The Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences bloomed from the seeds of the annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. The original meeting was founded in 1951 as an opportunity for Nobel Prize winners in medicine to meet and exchange ideas. The meeting evolved to focus on intergenerational collaboration between the laureates and young scientists in various fields. In 2004, a separate meeting focusing on economic sciences sprouted. Every three years Nobel laureates in economics meet with economists under the age of 35 to discuss current economic trends and possible future outcomes.

Lauharatanahirun considers herself a neuroeconomist, a member of a relatively new field in which neuroscience, economics, and psychology come together to explain human cognition with scientifically obtained and validated data. Economics was once thought to be facts and numbers, free from the more nuanced and less well-understood components of human brain function, including emotion. That theory was dispelled once economists realized that social standing, preconceived notions, and many other difficult-to-quantify factors influenced human decision-making.

“Economics and neuroscience can translate and improve each other,” Lauharatanahirun said. “I want to know how to use aspects of both fields to ask better research questions. These meetings are known to be transformative exchanges of ideas. Our discussions could lead me to completely change how I think of my research. That’s thrilling.”

Lauharatanahirun is currently spearheading a study on risky decision-making in adolescents, under the guidance of Brooks King-Casas, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and in Virginia Tech’s Department of Psychology. King-Casas is conducting a related study on risky decision-making in adolescents.

The initial data for Lauharatanahirun’s study reveal a common trend – healthy teenagers with normal brain function overestimate the consequences of their behavior, good or bad. They think greater rewards will come from good decisions, like joining a school club, while they believe bad decisions will reap dire penalties, such as the risk of cancer from smoking a single cigarette.

“Adolescence is a great age,” Lauharatanahirun said. “It’s the peak of development and the height of cognitive flexibility. Adolescents are the best at learning and adapting to changing circumstances, and we want to take advantage of that. If we can understand the biological basis underlying their decision-making, maybe we can develop tools and interventions for people who consistently make poor decisions, for example, about alcohol or drugs.”

The idea is that by combining the science of neural function and the less tangible social factors, a detailed picture of cause and effect for decision-making might emerge. This type of research requires out-of-the box thinking and perspectives from several fields, which Lauharatanahirun will tap into at the Lindau meeting with her peers, as well as the Nobel laureates.

“All around the world, we read each other’s papers and learn about each other’s research, but we don’t have many opportunities to meet in person and discuss our work face-to-face,” Lauharatanahirun said. “We all went into science because we have big questions. We all want to make progress, and that’s what continues to motivate our work.”

Written by Ashley WennersHerron

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June 27, 2014