‘Rising star’ of research awarded national Vanier Scholarship

Even after a few years of aging or a change in hairstyle, a familiar face, for most people, generally remains recognizable.

But less familiar faces can be a challenge to identify, especially for young children — and Claire Matthews wants to find out why.

“My research examines the perceptual and cognitive processes by which a newly encountered face becomes familiar,” says Matthews, a Brock PhD student in Psychology. “I’m interested in understanding how these processes develop throughout the lifespan.”

Matthews’ work has garnered national attention and most recently saw her awarded a prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship.

“It is extremely exciting to be recognized as a Vanier Scholar,” says Matthews, Brock’s sole 2018 recipient. “To know that my hard work in academics and research together with my involvement with the community are being recognized is an honour.”

The $50,000 scholarship is designed to attract and retain world-class doctoral students by supporting students who demonstrate both leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering, and health-related fields.

Receiving the significant monetary award will provide some financial comfort for Matthews.

“This scholarship will allow me to invest more time into my research and community involvement. It will also provide increased opportunities for me to travel to international conferences to disseminate my research,” she says.

“We are so proud of Claire’s many achievements. In particular, the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship recognizes her as an outstanding researcher, contributing to not only the reputation of Brock University, but to Canada’s reputation for excellence in research,” says Diane Dupont, Interim Dean of Graduate Studies.

Matthews became interested in facial perception while doing her undergraduate thesis in the lab of Catherine Mondloch in the Centre for Lifespan Development.

During her master’s degree at Brock, she explored why people have a harder time identifying faces outside of their own race. Her PhD will focus on facial recognition across the lifespan to understand differences in the process of learning.

“Children have even more difficulty learning a new face than adults. Our goal is to examine why this is the case,” Matthews says. “We aim to use methods that are realistic to how children learn faces in the real world. One of the studies in my PhD will examine whether motion facilitates children’s face learning. If motion helps children learn, we may actually be underestimating children’s abilities by asking them to recognize a new face by just looking at static images. Our lab is really the only lab in Canada examining these types of questions from a developmental perspective.”

Matthews’ research could have practical implications for various industries, such as law enforcement, and has even caught the attention of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

“Border Service agents need to analyze a photo of a person they have never seen before and quickly decide if that person is who they say they are,” she says. “I am working with the CBSA to use my research findings to help improve their training protocols.”

Catherine Mondloch, Matthews’ PhD supervisor, says the work Matthews is doing is cutting-edge and will impact Canadians.

“Claire is addressing unexplored questions in facial recognition with studies that demonstrate her ingenuity and commitment to research,” she says. “She is a rising star.”

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