Issue 5 – Spotlight

Contributed by Jennifer Ouyang, SASSC Undergrad Member-At-Large

Spotlight on SAS President Maital Neta

On a bright weekday afternoon in December, I ‘e-met’ Dr. Maital Neta, our SAS 2024 President, to learn more about her path through research and to thriving in affective science. Maital recounted her high school years when her interest in neuroscience was born, piqued by people’s varying emotional responses to the same piece of art:

I’ve often been curious about why I am so fond of Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, while others might find it boring. I thought at the time that there’s a chemical or physiological response in my brain that is moved by this work of art, and it’s just different for other people.

Studying psychobiology during her undergraduate years at UCLA, Maital connected her artistic sensibilities with scientific inquiry through work on subjective preferences for visual objects (“People tend to prefer curved things over sharp things when all else is equal, and that even true for the complete nonsense objects I created in Photoshop!”). It was publishing her first papers on this topic that motivated her to pursue a PhD on Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth. There, she returned to her core question from high school about differing reactions to the same stimulus by focusing on how people respond behaviorally, physiologically, and neurally to ambiguous facial expressions of surprise. Her findings brought her to new questions.

There’s a sort of initial, knee-jerk negativity, even for people who ultimately see an image as positive. That led me to wonder ‘How are they getting to positive? What’s the process that’s happening internally, that people are probably not even aware of?’

And so, next in her journey, Maital turned her attention to emotion regulation and the potential of training people, especially through mindfulness-based approaches, to see things differently.

When I asked Maital which of her projects excites her the most, she laughed (“Picking a favorite project is like picking a favorite kid”). She shared her excitement about exploring emotional flexibility, noting that children who are more flexible in their emotional responses are better at using reappraisal to interpret negative situations less negatively. Whereas it is commonly assumed that well-being is supported by a positive interpretation bias, Maital’s latest research suggests that it may be better to be open to alternatives.

Maital also highlighted the central role of interdisciplinarity in her research. For example, her lab investigated how the tendency to evaluate ambiguity more positively or negatively — known as valence bias — changed during the pandemic. In collaboration with Dr. Joelle LeMoult, a clinical psychologist from the University of British Columbia, Maital’s lab examined how valence bias may be influenced by loneliness. They found that loneliness affected how people rate images with people in them, but not images of nature. In another project, Maital is working with collaborators in athletics on the effects of sports-related concussions on brain organization, and the extent to which it recovers after injury. When I asked her how young researchers should navigate and establish a niche for themselves, she replied: “I think the best answer I could give to that relies on the idea of interdisciplinary collaborations, which is my actual research trajectory.”

Talking about her vision for SAS, Maital underscored the importance of supporting trainees and faculty — a mission that resonates with the society’s core values. She emphasized: “It’s a society where I’ve always felt able to have real conversations with people at all levels, from students all the way up to past presidents. There, I feel like people are accessible and engaged.” Maital’s approach to SAS is about nurturing an environment where young researchers can thrive, with a particular focus on inclusivity.

It’s really scary and hard to go to a conference for the first time, not knowing anybody, and feel like ‘I don’t know how things work’, while everybody else seems to know what they’re doing. That’s why we have the newcomer reception.

In our conversation, I also shared my own experiences as an international student facing an uncertain future in the US. As a fresh graduate, I watched most of my friends embark on their careers while I received rejection letters. However, SAS gave me a chance to present my work and welcomed me as a student member. The sense of belonging I found saved me at that moment. Maital understood well:

I’m so happy that happened. I feel the same way, frankly. When I was a student, I really struggled…I couldn’t find my future. I wasn’t sure what I was doing and where I was going; I just felt like I needed something more, and I wasn’t totally sure what it was. But when I started going to SAS, I felt like that was it.

Her experiences, mirroring my own, show how SAS is a place where one can find support, mentorship, and a sense of community — especially in challenging times. Our Zoom conversation was more than just an interview; it was a shared exploration of our passion for affective science. Maital’s story — marked by curiosity, resilience, and a dedication to interdisciplinary collaboration — offers a rich narrative of growth and discovery.

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