When Brad Kempster moved to Lethbridge this past summer and started constructing Lego models under the guidance of Dr. Claudia Gonzalez, he was also piecing together his future studies at the University of Lethbridge.
Kempster, currently an undergraduate student at Kamloops' Thompson Rivers University, was alerted by his brother (Cody, BSc '08, already a U of L student) to a research opening in Dr. Claudia Gonzalez's kinesiology lab. The ongoing project was the study of right and left hemispheric differences when processing information within the vision for action system in the brain.
"As an undergrad, this is a really nice consolidation of what I have learned over the past three years," says Kempster, a fourth-year BA student with a major in psychology. "Having taken a number of statistics classes and experimental design classes, to now have the opportunity to come to a university and work with someone who gives you the freedom to design an experiment and implement the knowledge you've gained from class has been great."
The research focuses around handedness and the contributions of each cerebral hemisphere to visuomotor integration. It may get at the core of why 90 per cent of the population is right-handed, and just may serve as a future tool to aid rehabilitation techniques for those who suffer right or left hemisphere brain damage.
The Lego tests that Kempster and Gonzalez administer are simple in design but offer deep insight into the workings of the brain. They present subjects with a Lego model, then time the participants as they attempt to reconstruct it from pieces scattered on a table divided into four quadrants.
"This is an effective and simple test to assess what hand people prefer to use when reaching out and grasping an object," says Gonzalez.
"What we have found, not surprisingly, is that right-handers use their right hand much more than their left hand, even though some of the objects are on the left side of the table," she says. "It's a less efficient movement but we still prefer to reach across rather than to use our left hand to perform the task.
"Interestingly, left-handers are not the mirror image of right-handers. Many people who say they are left-handed either use both hands or even their right hand more often than their left to reach and grasp the objects. By doing this task, you get a more accurate idea of their handedness, at least with respect to visuomotor control."
For Kempster, the hands-on research opportunity is invaluable, and upon completion of his undergraduate degree, he expects to come to the U of L and work on a master's degree under Gonzalez.
For Gonzalez and the U of L, the collaboration promises to yield another valuable graduate researcher.
"Working with undergraduates is one of the most satisfying experiences a professor can have," she says. "I've been very fortunate to add Brad to my team. Undergrads bring to the lab incredible amounts of energy and enthusiasm and his contributions have been quite significant to my research.
"He took a chance to come here and work with me this summer, even though he has a year of work to do before he finishes his degree. His plans are to come back here next year as a graduate student which is great for me, the department and the University."
GET THE FACTS
• Gonzalez is an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in kinesiology, earning her bachelor's degree in Mexico before completing both her master's and PhD at the U of L.
• There is no definitive answer as to why people are right- or left-handed. The theory that Gonzalez investigates is that the left hemisphere might be more specialized in visuomotor control, and that's part of the reason why right-handed use is more prevalent.
• Gonzalez says the evolution of a predominant right-handed society could be a chicken-and-egg scenario, asking, "Do we use our right hand more because the left hemisphere is more specialized in integrating visual and motor information, or did the left hemisphere become more specialized for visuomotor control because we are predominantly right-handed?"