Maureen Dunne Profile
Dr Maureen Dunne (Illinois & New 1999) is the Founder, CEO and Chief Scientist at UQ Life (www.uqlife.com), an education technology start-up that uses cutting-edge research in neuroscience to develop new platforms for learning and brain health. She previously worked as the Chief Science Officer at Brain Science Labs and is the founder of Code for Autism, a non-profit organization with the mission to improve the lives of people with autism spectrum disorders. She holds a Joint B.A./M.A. in Cognitive Sciences from the University of Chicago, a M.Sc. in Anthropology of Learning and Cognition from the London School of Economics, a D.Phil. in Cognitive Sciences from the University of Oxford and post-doctoral training in Cognitive Neuroscience with a focus on fMRI methodologies at MIT-Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital.
Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?
Maureen Dunne: The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD. I found it to be a fascinating and accessible exploration of neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to change and reorganize itself over the lifespan. We have been finding that the brain is far more malleable than previously assumed - even well into old age - and this has all sorts of implications for education, health, and productivity. The author makes an important point that the brain is constantly ‘learning how to learn.’ And, due to competitive plasticity, unlearning bad habits can be achieved but it is more difficult in neural terms than learning. On the other hand, learning a new skill at any age can potentially trigger neurogenesis and help strengthen cognitive functions such as working memory. I often tease my family and friends to be mindful of their daily activities– whether learning a musical instrument or not going to the gym – as any activities (or lack of) repeated over time can literally change your brain – for better or worse!
Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any issue, local or global, what would it be?
Maureen Dunne: I want to make education relevant to the skills required in the 21st century. The learning model that exists in schools at the moment needs to be disrupted: there have been so many advances in the fields of cognition, brain sciences and technology over the past decade that the present model of learning in schools has become outdated. Caring and talented teachers and mentors are, undoubtedly, crucial, but we also need to rethink how people can learn, effectively and accessibly, with technology.
Rhodes Project: When did you first become passionate about cognitive science?
Maureen Dunne: As a kid, I went back and forth between wanting to be a pianist and a neuroscientist. But it was when I was 17 that I really discovered what felt like an almost ingrained passion to apply research into service. This may sound clichéd but I recall distinctly that it felt like my purpose. I was pretty young and there was a key experience that served as the catalyst - I almost by accident started working with a five year old child diagnosed with autism who had no language, was aggressive, in diapers at the time and would literally pull my hair and bite me to attempt communication. After several hours a day of intense one-on-one interaction for eight months, I witnessed an incredible transformation. I was part of an early intervention team that witnessed this child’s first words, then sentences and, eventually, being mainstreamed in school. I learned first hand a powerful, powerful lesson: that repetitive activities and support reinforced each and every day can rewire the brain in even the most challenging of cases. It inspired me to understand and discover the brain through research but always for the purpose of pushing the boundaries of human potential, whether that meant working with an individual or developing a program model.
Rhodes Project: Tell me about what you worked on at Brain Science Labs.
Maureen Dunne: At Brain Science Labs, I conducted research that could be translated into real world products. The work ranged from artificial intelligence projects to developing games to strengthen core cognitive functions such as selective attention or memory.
Rhodes Project: What do you do for fun?
Maureen Dunne: I paint – something that I started to do during my time at Oxford – and love to go to art galleries. The creative process is something that I enjoy tremendously. I started to play the piano when I was four, and I still find it very relaxing to play. In recent years, even in the busiest of times, I carve out some time for yoga and meditation.
Rhodes Project: What kind of work are you doing now at UQ Life?
Maureen Dunne: We developed a cross-functional education platform that combines play, neuroscience and social support to improve learning skills. We started with the vision that people don’t always know their own potential, and my own experience suggests that access to the right tools and mentors can make all the difference in the world. The platform includes both tools for targeted skill development - including interactive experiences and games - and access to a network of mentors.
One of the advantages of technology as a tool for learning is that technology can adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of individual learners. By combining neuroscience research and interactive play to personalize experiences, we expect retention and actual learning to increase tremendously.
The social support element is equally as important. Family, teachers and other mentors can virtually join the learner even when separated geographically. This network creates a personalized trusted circle of mentors, family members and others to support learning and personal growth. Through our technology, the family members, teachers or mentors are able to participate, observe, give hints, take turns and offer encouragement.
Rhodes Project: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Maureen Dunne: Being the CEO of a tech start-up, you have to be adaptable and comfortable with uncertainty. On a daily basis, things arise that I couldn’t possibly predict. It’s exciting, but it takes courage to get up in the morning and know that there are a lot of elements that are unpredictable or unknown.
As a side note, the tech field is very male-dominated - I have heard that roughly 2 percent are women – largely, I think, because there are certain opportunities that girls aren’t exposed to early on or encouraged to pursue. More girls should be encouraged to learn how to code and be exposed to role models and mentors in this field. Also, there are differences in how women and men perceive the world, so it’s good for the industry if more women are involved.
Rhodes Project: What is an abiding memory of your time at Oxford?
Maureen Dunne: I don’t think there is one particular memory that stands out in my mind as much as how important that time period was to shaping the person I am today. In general, studying at Oxford is very different from most American universities: you are more independent, especially if you’re doing independent research for a doctorate. That time shaped me a lot, as a human being and as a researcher. During the vacations I used to teach. It was a great experience, I used to bring my students into the college gardens where we would sit in a circle and exchange ideas. I remember the sense of discovery and the peacefulness of it. On a more personal note, I experienced a number of personal challenges during my time at Oxford, including the loss of my mother to breast cancer shortly after matriculation. Oxford will always stand out in my mind as a time of intense change, self-reflection and personal growth.
Rhodes Project: If you weren’t a start-up CEO right now, where would you be working?
Maureen Dunne: I would be following the path I took before I worked in tech, which was research science and non-profit education work. In recent years, though, I have come to the conclusion that the best way to make a difference was to translate research into actual products that could change how people learn and interact in their daily lives. The work I do now isn’t just for children: it’s creating a whole new model of learning. We’re starting with programs for children but the vision and the technologies have the potential to benefit anyone who is interested in learning more effectively.
Rhodes Project: What advice would you offer to a young woman interested in a career in neuroscience and entrepreneurship?
Maureen Dunne: When you discover your passion, don’t be afraid to take risks.
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