Up Close: Aaron Mattfeld

By Vanessa Vieites 

At the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, we’re training the next generation of changemakers. Our faculty and students are constantly making new discoveries which lead to new publications and solutions. We took a closer look at not only the research, but the people who make it all happen. This is one in a series we’ve titled, Up Close.

Aaron Mattfeld has devoted his career to discovering how brains acquire and retain information.

He grew up in Great Falls, Mont., working in concrete construction with his dad and was always good at science. A first-generation college-student, Mattfeld was initially bound for medical school because, as he put it, that’s what you do in rural places when you’re good in math and science — you become a doctor.

Aaron Mattfeld

He earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences from Montana State University where his desire for creating knowledge outgrew his desire for acquiring it. He decided to conduct research at various universities and in different fields before pursuing a graduate degree. One of those research opportunities was at Johns Hopkins University.

“I did paid autism research for four years with an individual who was on the spectrum and very impaired. My job was to teach him certain life skills,” Mattfeld said. “He could learn the skills but not generalize them. The information he learned was rigid. So that got me interested in how we learn and remember things, and how we generalize that knowledge.”

Mattfeld went on to earn his Ph.D. in neurobiology and behavior in 2012 and came to FIU in 2014. He is now an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Memory and Development Lab at the Center for Children and Families. Using neuroimaging, he is exploring how memory influences decision-making.

“We don’t really know,” Mattfeld said. “All of the things we think we know are probably wrong.”

Curiosity and uncertainty are precisely what drove Mattfeld into the field of cognitive neuroscience.

Mattfeld combines human and animal research to get a better sense of how learning and memory happens at the neural level. He uses neuroimaging techniques to understand how memory influences the decisions people make. He’s developed unique lines of brain-related research projects using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to understand how sleep affects the way teenagers with anxiety generalize negative information and the brain networks associated with differences in reaction time in children with ADHD.  

“The ultimate goal is to predict better treatments to help improve children’s quality of life,” he said.

One of Mattfeld’s favorite things about his job is that the learning never stops. He enjoys building new experiments and adopting different techniques to answer his research questions. In a way, he says, it makes him feel like a detective and engineer.

The territory of being a scientist means an experiment doesn’t always yield expected results or a research article is rejected for publication, but that never deters Mattfeld.

“I’m constantly telling people in my lab that we need to be comfortable with failure, we need to be resilient to it,” he said. “My job is to fail gloriously. If I’m not failing, I’m not pushing the field.”

Though he is often surprised by how little we know about how the brain works, he believes discoveries are always on the horizon. Interdisciplinary research is key, according to Mattfeld.

“The only way to find out new things is through research—but it has to be research across disciplines, it has to be collaborative in nature,” he said, emphasizing communication between basic researchers and clinical psychologists alike.

Mattfeld works closely with Timothy Allen, an assistant professor of psychology at FIU and the director of the Neurocircuitry and Cognition Lab also at the Center for Children and Families. They met at UC Irvine – when he was a graduate student and Allen a post-doctoral fellow.

“He’s been really influential in the way I approach my science and think about my research questions,” Mattfeld said.

As the field of cognitive neuroscience progresses, Mattfeld looks forward to learning new techniques, directing a larger lab and playing more of a leadership role in bringing together human and animal researchers.

“Ten years from now, I think the technologies we have will advance,” Mattfeld said. “I want to discover new tools and continue to push the discoveries of mechanisms and how the brain works. I’m excited to think about all the approaches that will come about in 10 years.”