UI grad student ‘a rockstar’ of neuroscience

BY ALLIE WRIGHT | APRIL 07, 2011 7:20 AM

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A conversation is a lot more than words.

And Rupa Gupta, a University of Iowa graduate student, said she wants to unravel the intricacies of interaction, such as eye contact and timing.

“I’m just interested in how people interact with people,” said Gupta, who is working toward a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

Her advisers call her a standout in her field, but the 25-year-old was hesitant to praise her accomplishments.

She is conducting a study by inviting people to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and analyzing their social cues and actions during conversations. Her focus is on people with autism and how they interact with spouses and children.

Gupta is also researching how different functions of the brain are affected after strokes and damage from trauma.

She’s interested in how a person’s ability to communicate and interact socially is affected after a traumatic event — such as hitting a head on a patch of slippery ice or a severe car accident.

“Social interaction is a really complicated thing,” she said. “It’s more than just talking. There are subtle aspects.”

The researcher is quiet and collected, rarely moving her hands when she speaks, and she became humble when asked about her accomplishments. But she is quick to describe the specifics of her work in the simplest terms.

Gupta said she’s most interested in the underlying aspects of communication. After filming a conversation between a person with a brain injury and another participant, she reviews the tapes and analyzes them down to the tiniest detail. Brief pauses and when the subject looks up during a conversation all mean something, she said.

The South Bend, Ind., native graduated from Purdue University in 2007 with a degree in neurobiology before coming to the UI, from which she will graduate in 2012.

Gupta said she would like to become a psychology and neuroscience professor after graduate school and a earn post-doctoral fellowship rather than attend medical school.

“I’d like to teach other people the things I find really interesting,” she said.

In December, Gupta received the National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health. She received a perfect score on the grant application describing her research of how different brain areas are involved in social interaction.

John Keller, the dean of the UI Graduate College, said he was extremely impressed to with Gupta’s perfect score, noting that he had never heard of anyone achieving that before.

“She’s a student whom we have our eye on to promote through her time at the program,” he said.

Neurology Professor Daniel Tranel, one of Gupta’s advisers and the director of the UI neuroscience graduate-student program, said she is one of the best students he has ever worked with.

“It was obvious from the first minute that she was way ahead of her peer group,” Tranel said, and her intelligence, curiosity, and inquisitiveness set her apart from her competition.

Though Gupta is hesitant to discuss her merits, they speak for themselves. She has had her research published in several national scientific journals and is also a presidential fellow.

“She’s a rock star,” Tranel said.

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