26: Alea Corin Skwara



Program and Year of Study

PhD, 4th year (Perception, Cognition, and Cognitive Neuroscience)

Previous degrees and colleges

BA Theater, Davidson College

Where did you grow up?

Mainly in a small town called Sylva, near Asheville in the mountains of Western North Carolina

Where do you live now?

At N Street Cohousing, a retro-fit cohousing community in Davis

What's your favorite spot in Davis?

The Farmer’s Market and the redwood and oak groves in the arboretum. You might also find me holed up at Mishka’s or Temple.

How do you relax?

On a day-to-day basis, I play guitar and sing, meditate, read, go to yoga, and cook with my housemates. When I have more time, I go on hikes and backpacking trips in the mountains.

What was the last book you read for pleasure?

A Human Being Died That Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela

What TV show are you currently binge-watching?

I am anxiously awaiting new seasons of Broad City and Transparent.

Research interests

I study compassion and responses to suffering. At the highest level, my research is motivated by the overarching question: What are the qualities of a system that support compassionate responses to suffering? “System” here may refer to many levels of analysis: an individual, a single interaction, a dyadic relationship over time, a whole society, or the meta-system that emerges from the confluence of all these levels.

Dissertation title or topic

Longitudinal changes in compassion-relevant brain and autonomic nervous system activity over the course of intensive meditation retreat

A surprising or noteworthy fact or finding from your research

I recently found patterns of longitudinal change in brain activity at rest (when the participant is asked to simply sit without engaging in any sort of directed thought) over the course of a 3-month meditation retreat that mirror changes observed during Shamatha meditation in the same retreat participants. This suggests that observed retreat-related changes in brain activity may not be specific to meditation, but instead could be more domain-general. 

Which professor or class inspired you to pursue graduate studies?

My path to graduate school was a winding one, and it would be impossible for me to name one person or experience that led me here. I had a remarkable Biology teacher in high school (Mr. Beck) who nurtured my love for science, two marriage and family therapists for parents who made explorations of human psychology part of everyday conversation, a life-path-changing encounter with a deeply compassionate Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche, and the combination of intellectual challenge and support from my now-advisor (Dr. Cliff Saron) during a summer research institute, to name just a few influences.

Which scholarly text do you wish you had written? Why?

The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace by John Paul Lederach. This book is John Paul Lederach’s reflections on his long career in peace building, and highlights the importance of bringing one’s full self to the work. It explores the role of imagination in peace building: the ability to envision a world in which you coexist in relative peace with those who have deeply wronged you (the moral imagination). This is an essential read for anyone interested in peace building (but also, I think, for anyone in the sciences, especially those of us who research humans).

Which other researchers at UC Davis are doing work that particularly interests you?

The work of Dr. Phillip Shaver, professor emeritus of psychology, on attachment theory has been foundational to my understanding of human relationships and informs how I approach my own research questions.

One of the things I love about Davis is the opportunity to connect with people studying a range of questions. I’m fortunate enough to have friends in the Community Development, International Agricultural Development, Anthropology, and Ecology grad groups who inspire me with their work and thought.

What’s the best thing about being a grad student?

The fact that it is literally your job to think deeply about questions that matter to you (and hopefully to the world); the scheduling flexibility.

What's the worst?

The way that scheduling flexibility can turn into workaholism and constant “I should be working” guilt.

If you weren't a grad student, what would you be doing?

I probably either would have followed in my parents' footsteps and be a marriage and family therapist, or be working at an organization focused on refugee welfare.

Finally, please ask yourself a question

What’s something that surprises people when they learn it about you?

I used to be an opera singer! This was my main focus through undergrad. I even spent a semester studying vocal performance at L’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris.


—October 2017


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