Gates scholar Luning Sun talks about his research into the brain and memory function.
Gates scholar Luning Sun  is interested in the way people’s minds work and in developing a test for measuring memory function to help the increasing ageing population.
For his PhD he is looking to develop a test for people with various neurological disorders by measuring their memory function. He says the test he will develop could be helpful for assessing people with learning disabilities, but could have a more general use, for instance, in picking up early Alzheimer’s Disease.
“There are several tests available for testing memory function, but my test is an adaptive one so depending on your previous answer it adapts the difficulty level of the following question,” he says. This provides a more accurate picture of the individual’s memory functioning within a significantly shorter period of time.
Twenty-five-year-old Luning is the only child of two civil servants. Born in the beautiful coastal city of Qingdao, China, at 15, he went to a boarding school for three years. There, he was in the students’ union and played saxophone.
When he was admitted to Chuko Chen Honors College, Zhejiang University, he was not sure what he wanted to study and so did general studies in science. As part of this, he took an introductory course in psychology. “The professor performed really interesting experiments in class,” he says and it was he who persuaded Luning to take up psychology.
The course was four years’ long and involved a range of research projects. Luning, for instance, compared how German and Chinese students learn each others’ languages. He found that Chinese students were more likely to be mentally burnt out than their German counterparts and so more likely to lose interest in their coursework. The Germans were more physically exhausted because they were not used to learning a foreign language like Chinese and had to make more effort. Partly, says Luning, the problem was that the Chinese coursework was not very interesting and the students were less motivated to learn because German might not be their first choice of subject. Chinese students have to sit an entrance exam to get into university and list what they want to study. Many don’t get their first choice.
Luning himself learnt German and in his third year went to Germany on an exchange trip, his first trip abroad. He liked it so much – he says he was struck by how friendly everyone was – that he also did his masters there at the University of Munich and took the opportunity to travel to 15 different countries. The focus of his two-year masters programme was neurocognitive psychology and it involved independent research during the vacation period. During term time he also worked as a research assistant in a psychiatric hospital, mainly dealing with collecting and analysing statistical data. One project he worked on while in Germany involved working with schizophrenia patients and comparing their brain activities while they watched videos with that of people without schizophrenia. The aim was to check which part of their brain was affected by the schizophrenia.
He decided he wanted to do further study in the field of psychological testing and Googled psychometrics and Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre came up. He emailed the centre to find out more and got an instant reply. After learning about the Gates scholarship he decided to apply and started his PhD in Social and Developmental Psychology in 2010.
Based at Downing College, he says he is very much enjoying Cambridge. He very much hopes to continue his academic career after he finishes his PhD.
Picture credit: dream designs and www.freedigitalphotos.net