It has been quite a year for our Junior Research Fellow Dr Leor Zmigrod, even without the global pandemic. In April she was awarded the prestigious 2020 Glushko Prize in Cognitive Science by the Cognitive Science Society and was listed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the Science & Healthcare category.
In May she received the 2020 Young Investigator Award by the European Society for Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (ESCAN). In August she was elected as an honorary early-career fellow at the Paris Institute for Advanced Study for the next academic year, and in February, she won the Science Award at the Women of the Future Awards.
So how did Leor get to this stage? She started as an undergraduate at Downing College, completing her BA and PhD at Cambridge as a Gates Scholar. She also spent time as a visiting research fellow at Stanford University (2018) and Harvard University (2019) before joining Churchill as a JRF later that same year. A passionate believer in trying many things until you find the subject that excites you, Leor’s combined love of how the brain understands reality and engages in politics led her to investigate the psychology of ideological thinking, voting behaviour, and group identity formation. In particular, Leor’s research explores cognitive and neurobiological traits that might act as vulnerability factors for radicalization and ideologically-motivated behaviour.
Leor is exceptionally modest about her achievements, stating that she was ‘lucky’ to get the JRF position, which allows her to be creative and to develop her independent research at a relatively early stage in her career. But looking at what she has achieved during the last twelve months, it’s clear that her work ethic that has played the biggest role. In addition to conducting her cognitive and neurobiological research into ideologies, and compiling and editing the recently-published 18-paper Theme Issue in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, titled “The Political Brain: Neurocognitive and Computational Mechanisms Underlying Ideological Behaviour”, Leor founded the Cambridge Cognitive Science Research Assistantship Scheme, which allowed her to virtually teach basic data analysis to 50 sixth form students. Speaking of her reasons for setting the scheme up, Leor said “sixth formers and undergrads have fewer opportunities to get involved in research as they don’t have the necessary skills and there are few training opportunities at such an early stage of their career.” But Leor created a mutually beneficial initiative that would allow her to fulfil her research needs whilst giving research experience to passionate students at the point of choosing what they wanted to study. Her enthusiasm for this initiative is abundantly clear. “Some went on to apply to study psychology and some even got into Oxbridge. It was so rewarding. A real highlight”.
So what’s next for Leor? She is, of course, characteristically upbeat, hoping that she can get to Paris for her fellowship and work with colleagues from all over the world, with a focus on the neurobiological and environmental influences that shape ideological attitudes. And at the time of speaking, Leor was preparing to speak at the launch event of new student-run society ‘Cambridge Women who Lead’, which focused on how to encourage young women and minorities to get into STEM and shine as scientists and thinkers. We can’t think of anyone better to start that spark in a new generation of female scientists, and we’re looking forward to seeing what Leor does next.