A Dream Opportunity

Santa Clara University’s sleep lab is one of only a very few such research facilities at an undergraduate institution. The lab will be fully operational within the next few months–but it’s already benefiting students, faculty, the University, and the research community.

A Dream Opportunity
Photography by Charles Barry

When, as a high school senior, Danica Zold had to choose a college among several that were competing for her, Associate Professor of Psychology Tracey Kahan’s brand-new sleep lab gave Santa Clara University the edge. “Working in a lab like this was one of the main things I hoped to accomplish by coming here,” says SCU junior Zold, now one of Kahan’s research assistants and a student lab manager.

Kahan started the sleep lab in 2003 in part to help psychology students develop research and analytic skills while studying sleep and dreaming cognition. Laboratory training is fundamental in scientific research, but it’s not always easy to get as an undergrad. “By mentoring research assistants in programs like the sleep lab,” says Kahan, “our faculty hopes to give students an edge when competing for spots in the best graduate programs.”

Until three years ago, Kahan herself didn’t exactly feel at home in a sleep laboratory. As an established and respected cognitive psychologist, she didn’t have to. Her behavioral studies in dreaming and waking cognition had already broken ground and influenced the field. But Kahan concluded that in order to significantly advance her work, she’d need to acquire an additional set of research skills that could be learned only by developing a sleep laboratory.

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CU student Anee Thompson and Kahan attach sensors to the head of SCU student Bibi Stang, a member of their research team and a volunteer on this day. The red crosses on her forehead mark the sensor locations.

Beneficial collaboration

As a consultant on sleep cognition at SRI International in Menlo Park, Kahan has nurtured an innovative collaboration with Ian Colrain, director of SRI’s Human Sleep Research Program. The SRI program has one of the world’s most advanced research-only sleep labs, and Kahan’s professional association there has benefited Santa Clara’s fledgling sleep lab in several important ways.

For example, Santa Clara student research assistants have visited Colrain’s lab, observing studies in progress and meeting sleep researchers. In addition, SRI researchers provided much-needed technical assistance by helping Kahan get her polysomnography system—the equipment that captures study participants’ sleep-pattern data—to work properly. “Different companies create the software and hardware involved,” Colrain explains. “Getting both to work properly together is always a challenge.”

SRI is realizing advantages as well. “It’s an active collaboration,” Colrain explains, “where she’s getting the benefit of training in our lab and learning all the stuff that we’re really good at, while we’re gaining the benefit of her different point of view and skills—which are proving quite useful to us.”

In addition, Colrain and his lab need experienced and well-trained people to manage a variety of sleep study projects. By working with students from local universities, such as Santa Clara and Stanford (where Colrain teaches), the SRI researchers hope to nurture a nearby pool of talent.

In fact, SRI has already hired one Santa Clara alumnus, Matt Freeland ’02, although he graduated before Kahan’s lab came together. Freeland joined SRI in mid-2005, helped by an enthusiastic recommendation from Kahan, his mentor and former SCU advisor. He is currently being trained to manage an upcoming study on smoking cessation and the quality of sleep.

A critical juncture

Santa Clara funded the start-up of Kahan’s sleep lab with grant money that came in part from the Montgomery Foundation. Two years later, with equipment installed and tuned, protocols and measures largely developed, and student research assistants trained, the lab is at last poised to begin contributing to science.

Kahan plans to work with students to investigate some interesting questions, such as the way attention, problem-solving skills, and self-awareness vary across the sleep/wake cycle. Another intended area of study that would be particularly relevant to students is the way sleep debt influences attention, mood, and performance (see sidebar).

Like all lab-based research, however, sleep research is expensive. To pay for it, Kahan is doing what research universities and graduate schools have to do all the time—applying for federal research grants.

It’s a very competitive arena. But odds are, Kahan will find funding somehow. She is, after all, a believer and an optimist—and, appropriately, a dreamer.

– Monte Lorenzet is a freelance science and technology writer based in Silicon Valley.

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