Faculty Spotlight: Derek Nee

| Thu, 06/01/23
This is a headshot of Derek Nee.
Associate professor of psychology Derek Nee. Photo by Amy Walden.

Derek Nee is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience, both part of the College of Arts and Sciences. He also serves as a clinical assistant professor in FSU’s College of Medicine. Nee’s research interests involve examining the neural mechanisms underlying cognitive control and working memory in the human brain. After completing his doctoral degree at the University of Michigan in 2008, Nee worked as a postdoctoral scholar before joining FSU as an assistant professor in 2016.

Tell us a little about your background and academic credentials.

I earned my bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College, dual majoring in computer science and cognitive science. I earned my doctoral degree in psychology from the University of Michigan, and I completed postdoctoral positions at Indiana University and the University of California, Berkeley.

What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?

I was welcomed to FSU to help establish the study of human neuroscience at this university. The prospect of being a foundational member of a new field of study for FSU was extremely attractive. Since arriving, I’ve had the chance to not only build my own lab but also substantially shape human neuroscience at FSU. I’ve been floored by the amount of support I’ve received across the university. It’s wonderful to feel valued and supported!

Can you break down your areas of research for us?

I use brain imaging and brain stimulation to understand the mechanisms underlying complex cognition, specifically cognitive control. Cognitive control is our capacity to adaptively guide our thoughts and actions when we cannot simply lean on learned habits. From holding our tongue when we want to but shouldn’t speak, to driving on the opposite side of the road in a foreign country, to pausing then resuming work around addressing the needs of a child, our brains hold tremendous capacity for flexible actions to meet our goals. My research seeks to understand this complex capacity and to apply this knowledge to novel interventions that can help individuals whose capacities are impaired, such as those affected by neurological disorders.

What inspired you to choose your field of study?

My interests originally lay in artificial intelligence. I thought a productive route to designing intelligent systems would be to understand the most intelligent system on the planet: the human mind. Therefore, I study cognitive capacities that are exceptional in humans which give rise to intelligence.

What do you want the public to know about your research? Why are your topics important?

Everyone wishes they had more control. We would like to filter out distractions to focus on the task at hand, quell irrelevant thoughts to sleep at night, and do the right thing even when it is the hard thing. The finite and capacity-limited nature of our mental control is a challenge for all of us. It’s even more challenging for individuals who suffer from neurological disorders, which impact control and result in substantial losses of quality of life. My hope is that my research will provide relief for individuals suffering from diminished control and even help to augment otherwise healthy individuals looking for a little more control.

What was your reaction when you won the Developing Scholar Award, which recognizes outstanding research and/or creative activity of FSU faculty? What does the award mean to you?

My reaction was a tremendous amount of gratitude to the Department of Psychology and College of Arts and Sciences. I’m where I am today because of the incredible support I’ve received. This award reflects the investments made in me by colleagues and administrators, and it galvanizes my resolve to return on those investments.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I adore working with talented students and cherish my fantastic colleagues. However, in my heart, I’m a numbers geek. I’m in my happy place when I’m cranking on data and unraveling the mysteries of the mind.

Who are your role models? Are there certain people who have influenced you most in your life and career?

My graduate mentor and Edward E. Smith Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Michigan, John Jonides, taught me enthusiasm for science and how to break down large, challenging problems into little steps. David Meyer, distinguished professor of mathematical psychology and cognitive science at the University of Michigan, taught many of my graduate courses and gave me an appreciation of the importance of nuanced detail in experimentation and data analysis. Josh Brown, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University and my first postdoctoral mentor, pushed me to think about the computational mechanisms that produce the observations we see in data. Mark D’Esposito, professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkely and my second postdoctoral mentor, gave me an appreciation of the neuroscientific perspective of our work and its applications to neuropsychiatric and neurological patients.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects or goals you’re working towards?

Brain stimulation-based treatments for illnesses like depression are on the rise, but we know very little about how brain stimulation alters the brain. I’m excited to have two grants focused on examining the effects of brain stimulation on the brain and how those effects give rise to alterations of cognition and affect. I have high hopes that the insights gained will translate to more refined brain stimulation-based treatments.

If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

I have a quote on my office wall from Derek Jeter that reads “There may be people who have more talent than you, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.” There’s so much that is outside our control, but one thing we can do is give everything we have to everything that matters to us. Whether my students remain in science or find a different calling, I hope they reach their potential by giving it their all.