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The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: The First-Generation College Student Modifying the Memories of Humans

We canvassed the world of the social and behavioral sciences, looking for rising stars whose careers promise to make a lasting mark. We'll be profiling the top 30 throughout the month of April.


(Illustration: Graham Smith)

(Illustration: Graham Smith)

If you read last year’s “30 Under 30” list, you know about Steve Ramirez, who figured out how to implant false memories in rats’ brains. This year we’re profiling Iliana Vargas, who’s trying to do the same in humans.

She was 17 when she first became interested in neuroscience—she’d read a Scientific American article about synesthesia. “Even though this was the most interesting and bizarre disorder I had ever heard of, what intrigued me the most was not the disorder itself, but the possible neural bases behind the disorder,” Vargas says. “Since then, my interest in the neural processes underlying cognition has grown and my focus has shifted from synesthesia to memory.” She’s especially interested in how memories are consolidated and stored and processed in different regions of the brain.

Her lab’s research has already shown that playing specific sounds to people who are sleeping can strengthen their recollection of what they learned that day. Vargas’ dissertation focuses on figuring out whether we can use this novel sound-cues-while-sleeping technique to modify people’s existing memories. She’s trying to understand whether we can tweak the brain so that it becomes flexible enough to better absorb different types of information—a feat that would do great things for our capacity to learn.

Vargas, a fifth year doctoral student at Northwestern University, where she’s funded by a National Science Foundation fellowship, got her undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Arizona, where she was elected into Phi Beta Kappa.

"One of the most important things I’ve learned from him is that conducting an unsuccessful study doesn’t make you a bad scientist. It doesn’t mean it was not a well-conducted study, a bad idea, or that your topic isn’t worth investigating."

She grew up in Los Angeles until her family moved to a ritzy Phoenix suburb right before she started middle school. “I went from a school where 99 percent of the students were also Latino children born to working-class parents to being the only minority student in the classroom surrounded by students whose parents were doctors, business owners, and university professors,” she says. Though the change was tough, she suddenly had better teachers and a more challenging curriculum.

Vargas’ parents, both from Mexico, always stressed the importance of hard work. “Although they have always been supportive of my interest in continuing my education,” she says, “they lacked the resources to guide me through the college application process or assist me financially throughout my schooling. As a result, I know how difficult it is for first-generation students to attend college.”

In fact, that issue concerns her so deeply that she hopes to shift into “more translational research” to increase diversity across academic fields, especially in science and technology.

“The longer I stay in academia,” Vargas says, “the more aware I have become at the difficulties that minority students face at all levels of the education system. I hope to be able to do research that can lead to constructive changes within education.”

She’s already started to find ways to promote higher education within under-represented populations, in part via her volunteer work for Horizons for Youth, where she mentors children from low-resource neighborhoods around Chicago. Vargas is also on the board of Northwestern’s chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, and uses her Spanish skills to translate materials for the Adler Planetarium’s exhibits.

Still, she sees herself being a researcher a decade from now.

Her graduate advisor, Ken Paller, is her mentor. “He has always been supportive of the more high-risk projects that I have pursued, like implanting false memories during sleep,” she says. “Most students starting a research-based graduate program falsely believe that they’ll have dozens of successful projects with a long list of publications by the time they graduate, but that’s hardly ever the case. One of the most important things I’ve learned from him is that conducting an unsuccessful study doesn’t make you a bad scientist. It doesn’t mean it was not a well-conducted study, a bad idea, or that your topic isn’t worth investigating.”

We’ll be publishing profiles of this year’s list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of April. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we make it our mission to cover every day at Pacific Standard.

A version of this year’s list is also available to subscribers as a feature in our May/June print issue. For more from Pacific Standard on the science of society, and to support our work, sign up for our email newsletter and subscribe to our bimonthly magazine. Digital editions are available in the App Store (iPad) and on Zinio (Android, iPad, PC/MAC, iPhone, and Win8), Amazon, and Google Play (Android).