The hidden connection between improv comedy and neuroscience research

From a series on researchers and innovators at Boston Children’s Hospital

Improbable as it sounds, autism researcher Susan Faja, PhD, likens her job to improv. “I really like Tina Fey’s description of her days as an improv comedian,” says Faja, who joined Boston Children’s Hospital’s Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience in July 2014 as a research associate. “In improv, you have to say ‘yes’ to the lead handed to you by your partner and then add an ‘and’ with your own contribution. My research approach is similar. Understanding how a particular neural system is working provides a starting point. Designing a targeted intervention starting at that point is like saying, ‘yes, and…’”

Like an improv routine where new elements keep getting added, Faja loves to investigate how brain and behavior and research and clinical application can be combined. Currently, she is examining whether computer training can change brain responses and behavior in children with autism spectrum disorder.

She first investigates how neural responses correlate to symptoms of autism and then tests a targeted training, using electrophysiology to understand which aspects of brain and behavior it changes. Her work was recently recognized by the National Institutes of Health Career Development Award.

What is the potential impact of your work for children with autism?

This research uses electrophysiology in an innovative way to predict and test treatment-related changes. Specifically, we are studying a training program that focuses on executive function, which is the ability to manage complex or conflicting information in the service of a goal. Executive function is related to social problem solving, and our project will also determine whether training executive skills can help improve the social abilities of children with autism.

If the training works, it will pave the way for clinical innovation because, although executive function difficulties are well documented for children with autism, there are virtually no research-supported interventions. We are hopeful that this work will lead to improved functioning for children with autism at home and school.

How did your innovation originate?

This innovation was born from the synthesis of my clinical work with families of children with autism and my background in neuroscience. In the clinic, I was evaluating children who were doing well in many areas but were experiencing problems at school related to their ability to organize and flexibly respond to complex information (i.e., executive function). I started reading and thinking about how the brain develops executive function. At the same time, my mentor in graduate school at the University of Washington, Geraldine Dawson, met with a researcher who was developing training for attention and executive skills in children without autism and shared the work with me. The spark came when this scientific information and my clinical work were combined.

If you weren’t innovating at Boston Children’s, what would your dream job be?

Susan Faja autism neuroscience
Faja enjoys the big picture, but also the little details.

I would love to be a chef or an architect. It would be fun to get paid to make things on a daily basis. When I was younger, I loved to create miniature things—tiny roses and food made of clay, a model of a mummy for school, dioramas and dollhouses.

I still enjoy tinkering with miniatures when I have the time. By playing with scale, I love to see how the pieces fit together and get lost in the little details. Luckily, my work at Boston Children’s allows me to think about scaling from how neurons are working together in a system all the way to the behavior of children I meet.

If you were CEO for one day, what would you do?

I would work to connect people from different areas in the organization, and I would emphasize scheduling time for creative thinking. One way to accomplish both of these simultaneously would be to encourage exercise groups within the organization. When I am running or taking a yoga class, my brain has a chance to change gears. I do some of my best creative thinking when I am away from my computer and moving my body.

How have the first few months been for you at Boston Children’s Hospital?

Well, I think the “yes, and…” philosophy has certainly kept me busy! My husband and I moved to Boston from Seattle this summer with our 2-month-old son and our cat because we felt like Boston held so much creative potential for our family. So far, it’s been fascinating to learn about the innovative ideas that people here have for tackling all kinds of problems—big and small. I’ve been training for a half marathon, getting my electrophysiology lab up and running and building an incredible team while always trying to say “yes, and…” to others who are eager to collaborate or contribute to research.