"This is us" - Questions for Sarah Power

March 07, 2024

Our institute has over 300 employees. But that is just a number. Who are the people at our institute? What do they do and what drives them? In our "This is us" format, colleagues answer questions about their work and their motivation.

On the occasion of International Women's Day on March 8, 2023, we started the series “This is us” with 15 female scientists from our institute. We are picking up where we left off and introducing the scientist Sarah Power from the Center for Lifespan Psychology. In the last episode, we introduced Julia Wambach from the Center for History of Emotions.

One of your research topics at the Center for Lifespan PSychology is the memory development in toddlers. What fascinates you about this topic? 

The topic of memory development, particularly the phenomenon of infantile amnesia, fascinates me on many levels. Despite early childhood being a critical period that significantly shapes our future experiences and behaviours, there is a remarkable gap in our understanding of why we tend to forget the earliest years of our lives. Infantile amnesia, the widespread and persistent inability to recall early childhood memories, poses a captivating puzzle. Why is it that we cannot remember the day we took our first step or the party our parents held for our first birthday? It raises questions about the nature of memory storage and retrieval processes during early childhood. This phenomenon is one of the most widespread forms of forgetting but receives little attention from neuroscience – which makes it even more fascinating. 

What exciting insights have you gained so far? What has surprised you? 

During my research in rodents, I discovered that infantile amnesia is a reversible and malleable process and that those memories formed early in development persist in the brain, albeit unretrievable by natural cues. Transitioning to human studies, our preliminary results have unveiled intriguing patterns in memory retention in toddlers. We find that toddlers above 20 months can retain memories of our task for up to at least six months. This was something I found very surprising, as it suggests that there might be more persistence in memory retention during early childhood than previously thought.

Where do you get your research ideas from?   

My research ideas are heavily influenced by rodent studies, particularly from my experience in developing behavioural tests for studying memory development in infant mice. This background has led me to envision a cross-species platform for investigating infantile amnesia in children. The parallels between rodent and human behavior provide a unique opportunity to explore common principles underlying memory development and by leveraging the strengths of both rodent and human studies I believe will lead to a more comprehensive understanding of memory development in early childhood.

Why did you decide to go into science?  Was there a defining moment for you? 

Growing up, I found myself constantly drawn to science. During university, I found myself signing up for modules like astronomy and space science simply because I found them so interesting. A defining moment for me occurred during our final years in university when we had to dedicate three months to laboratory-based thesis research. I found myself thoroughly enjoying every moment. The hands-on nature of the research and the challenges encountered left me with a profound appreciation for the laboratory environment and science. I returned not only loving my time spent there but also feeling a sense of reluctance to go back to lectures.

What do you appreciate about the Max Planck Community? 

I appreciate the Max Planck Community for providing me with the opportunity to engage with a diverse array of scholars from various disciplines. This experience has been invaluable in enriching my research journey. Networking with colleagues and establishing contacts across different fields has not only broadened my understanding but also created possibilities for collaborations on interdisciplinary projects. Moreover, I highly appreciate the community's support for unconventional scientific endeavours such as the development of translational research, as not every institution fosters the space and encouragement for such initiatives. 

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