Meet the professor: Alex Kranjec
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Soccer, strokes and psychology all factor into the work of professor Alexander Kranjec.
"I liked to play soccer," said Kranjec, one of the newest professors in Duquesne's psychology department. "I wasn't interested in understanding the brain."
Kranjec is currently developing experiments using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), a process in which electrodes are applied to the outside of the skull and create a direct electrical current through a specified portion of the brain. That current enhances the rate at which neurons in the brain are able to fire.
"You basically jump start the brain a little bit," Kranjec said.
Teaming up with the Duquesne speech pathology department, Kranjec is studying the effects of tDCS on stroke patients. Upon suffering a stroke, many patients develop lesions, or abnormalities, in the brain. These lesions cause aphasia, an impairment of a specific brain function. For many stoke victims, that impairment occurs on the part of the brain that controls speech. For years, speech pathologists have been giving stroke patients small tasks, such as naming verbs and nouns on flashcards, in order to repair brain function. Kranjec's data is already beginning to show that tDCS, partnered with the word naming assignments, has helped speed up recovery time for stroke patients.
It's hard to believe that all of this research comes from a man who, up until the end of graduate school, wanted nothing to do with psychology.
The 40-year-old professor sat comfortably in his office with one leg tucked under the other and his arm hanging over the back of his chair as he explained how the field has evolved.
"A lot of it is how the field changed," Kranjec said. "In order to be successful in this field, you have to study the brain."
Kranjec's investigative nature led him to the field of experimental psychology as opposed to clinical psychology.
"I was always interested in investigating basic science questions about language and spatial cognition," Kranjec said. "However this current project allows me to apply my interests within a clinical setting and hopefully improve the lives of people with stroke related language impairments."
At first, Kranjec was interested in the big picture, not neurons in the brain.
"I liked the idea of asking big questions," Kranjec said, his hair and beard equally disheveled.
In 1995, Kranjec received his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Grinnell College in Iowa. While at Grinnell, Kranjec enjoyed singing in a punk band called Better Off Airport. The name, according to Kranjec, "was not supposed to make sense."
Kranjec received his doctorate in experimental psychology in 2006 from the City University of New York. Before starting at Duquesne in the fall of 2012, Kranjec worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Neurology Department and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.
After attending graduate school, Kranjec began to take a different look at his "big picture" idea of philosophy.
"It is sort of unsatisfying because there are no answers," Kranjec said.
Kranjec continued to play soccer through his collegiate years. It was this love of soccer that led Kranjec to an experiment that would bring him into the national spotlight of academia as well as sports.
"Me and my colleague just wanted to do a study about soccer," Kranjec said with a smile.
Kranjec understood that in the United States, everyone has a spatial bias due to the way we read from left to right. Any movement from right to left is viewed as a "spatial discomfort." Kranjec tested several "soccer experts" by showing small film clips of offensive and defensive interaction and asked the experts if any fouls had occurred. Many of the clips were shown numerous times, but from different angles. Kranjec found that a foul is most likely to be called when the play is moving from right to left as opposed from left to right due to the spatial discomfort.
Leswin Laubscher, chairperson of the Duquesne psychology department, took notice of Kranjec's psychological accomplishments on the soccer field.
"His research on referees calling soccer fouls more readily if the action is from right to left, as opposed to from left to right," Laubscher said, "has enjoyed press and coverage all over the world, and has been reported on in as many languages as there are soccer teams in the World Cup."
Laubscher is ecstatic to have Kranjec be a part of the Duquesne psychology department.
"Suffice it to say that we are very happy to have Dr. Kranjec as a colleague - his credentials are superb and unparalleled," Laubscher said. "His work is very widely known and respected in the academic fraternity, and even beyond."
James Swindal, dean of the McAnulty College of Liberal Arts, is also impressed by Kranjec's academic reputation and sees his research as an "exciting and cutting edge kind of scientific work."
"We are extremely happy and grateful to have a scholar with Dr. Kranjec's credentials in our department," Swindal said, "He brings with him not only a rich background in neuro-psychology but also a strong interest in teaching both graduates and undergraduates."
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