By Steve Sears
Professor David Freestone, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at William Paterson University, knew while a student at the institution that he wanted to be a professor.
“William Paterson has always been a really, really important place to me,” he says. “My mom got her master’s here in the late ‘80s or early 90s. In fact, I started here as an undergraduate, and when I was in high school, I wanted to be a high school History teacher. At the time, I had a friend who was going here for History, and it was the obvious place to go; they had a good History program, they had a good teaching education program. And I came here, and it was actually after I was here for a year that I decided I wanted to be a professor. I was looking around at my professors and I was blown away. The job that they had was so cool, they were so encouraging, they were an amazing group of people. The atmosphere that I had here was absolutely fantastic, and so I kind of credit William Paterson as being the reason why I decided to go into Science even though I was still a History major. I credit William Paterson as the reason why I wanted to pursue after college a graduate degree. I credit William Paterson 100%. So, when the job, the position, opened up, I jumped at the chance to apply here.”
Freestone celebrates two years at the university this September, and since his arrival his department has been incredibly supportive of his endeavors, encourage his improving his teaching and researching skills, and encourage him to try things that will enable his betterment in both.
Speaking of “endeavors,” Freestone, 34, will be headed to Sao Paulo, Brazil from May – August 2020 after applying and being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship Grant to both develop, test, and teach a new experimental design, graduate-level science course to study how animals learn time intervals. The host institution is Universidade Federal do ABC, and Freestone will be working at the Center for Mathematics Computation and Cognition.
The above is both a testament to WPU, as well as Freestone himself, to whom it is suggested he teaches “on a mountain” and also self-educated himself on one (he grew up in High Point, the site of New Jersey’s highest peat at 1,803 feet), often visiting that state park and nearby Stokes State Forest, studying specimens of various kinds of life. “Oh yeah,” he says, excitedly recalling his youth. “It’s beautiful there.”
Freestone explains the process of attaining the grant, start to finish. “I have a friend of mine (Marcelo Caetano) – we went to grad school together – who became the Chair of a department (at Universidade Federal do ABC) in Brazil. We thought a lot about problems in similar ways, but we never really collaborated before. Last year or so he had a student who wanted some advice on some of her dissertation work, and they pulled me on because I both know about Timing and I know about Decision-Making,” says Freestone, who did post-op work in Decision-Making at NYU (New York University). The trio worked on a project looking at Timing and Decision-Making in the brain (in humans and in rats). “We started working on this project together, and it turns out we work really, really well together, and then the opportunity came up to do a Fulbright down there, so we both jumped at the chance.”
Freestone’s friend supplied the host school letter inviting him, and Freestone himself applied and submitted a personal statement letter. From then on, it was waiting and hoping until a few months later, when Freestone received a letter saying his grant application had been recommended to the board, and then another few months, when the grant had been approved.
Freestone was a double major in History and Psychology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, and he loved both, and had his eyes on going to graduate school to be a professor. His dilemma? Which subject to teach. After much consideration he decided on Psychology, and was interested in, in his words, “Psychology, Genetics, biological stuff.” He joined a lab that he thought was doing genetics of learning and memory – and they did work on that, but it really was a Mathematical Computational lab of Psychology, where they studied what kinds of processes were going on in the brain when you are learning things. His project at that time was to investigate a problem in timing in humans and mice. “I got really fascinated by it,” he recalls. “For a lot of these problems, you get the same exact answer if you ask a mouse versus asking a human.” From there, he decided to pursue this realm of education and he went to grad school at Brown University in Rhode Island, working with someone who focused on mechanisms and time perception and estimation, and in five years earned his PhD.
There were two threads to his grad work: time estimation, and how that time is used to make risky decisions. His dissertation related to the before mentioned, and he decided he wanted more formal training in Neuroscience and risky decision making. He then went to NYU and studied Neuroeconomics (a blend of psychology, economics, and neuroscience), and now integrates in his own lab at any level he wishes Decision Making and Timing. He taught at Bucknell University for two years prior to arriving at WPU.
While in Brazil, Freestone’s goal will be a few things. “The purpose of the Fulbright is to provide mechanism and resources to people to trade ideas and resources from universities, particularly international universities. There are three types of Fulbright scholarships you can get. One is a teacher scholarship, one is a research scholarship, and the other is a hybrid scholarship. I picked the hybrid scholarship because I saw it as an opportunity to share resources on both research and teaching. The University down there is an absolutely fantastic university – they have some really, really wonderful people, and they’re building and rebuilding their existing programs.” One of those classes the university is focusing on rebuilding is Cognitive Science. “On our (WPU) end, we have a wonderful Cognitive Science Honors program, that Dr. Amy Learmonth is the Director of, and I work very closely with her and with the students in that program. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could take some of the ideas we’ve had here and talk about them there, and what if we could get ideas from them and bring them here?’ So that’s the teaching component. What I’ll be doing is teaching a Cognitive Science graduate seminar. They are perfectly capable of doing a very good Cognitive Science program, but I have some expertise that they don’t, and they have some expertise that I don’t. Coming together, I think we can create a better class than you’ve ever seen.”
What he does, and what he will be doing during his trip, are very important to Freestone for two reasons. “First is, it’s just interesting,” he says with a huge smile. “How brains work and how they give rise to this really complicated world is absolutely fascinating. On that level it’s just kind of curiosity, but I’m really interested in how it works. I kind of take an engineering approach to it, which is, ‘How would you build a system that does that?’ I just find that an absolutely fascinating problem to work on. In order to solve that problem, I think we can get our cues from anywhere that will help. I think learning is the key to it all, and I think being open to different views on the learning is the way to answer it, the way to get at it.”
When not in the classroom, Freestone, who often writes journal articles and feels it would be fun to tackle a future book project, often reads in his field, and he encourages all to read something on the topic of science. “If they (the reader) don’t find it interesting – and I’m a little bit bias,” he adds with a chuckle, “I wonder if it’s because they haven’t found the problem in science that’s interesting. You need to develop a fascination with it or an interest in it. There are really interesting Science books written for a non-scientist, that give you just enough information to be interested in the topic. And then as you’re reading more, you want more information, and you dig in deeper and deeper.”
He then thinks for a moment, and concludes with, “Yeah, I guess my overall approach is that life is an interesting place and that there are a lot of ways of thinking about it.”
“Science is one of those ways. If you’re not thinking about science at all, you’re missing one of the interesting ways of thinking about life.”