Meet Dr. Donna Rose Addis

Hey BrainBreakers! For most of us, uni would have started and it’s another new semester!

To serve as sort of a motivation post and to keep us going through another school year), BrainBreaking presents its first ever interview with a very inspiring and successful psychologist in her respective field. Marnelli and I were truly honoured to have had this opportunity.

So without further ado, we introduce to you Dr. Donna Rose Addis, who is currently a Psychologist in the University of Auckland, and head of the Memory Lab. Her work revolves around our memories, how we imagine the past, and how our brain uses this information to imagine the future.

Dr. Donna Addis in her office, standing by her brother's artwork. Rights Reserved

Humble Beginnings

Considering her numerous awards and achievements at present, it was very interesting to know about how Dr. Addis started out her career. University wasn’t always an option for her, as she grew up in Mangare East, in South Auckland, where most people her age didn’t strive for a university education. No one in her family had even finished high school, so the idea of university seemed very intimidating.

But thanks to a fortunate turn of events, Dr. Addis had won a scholarship and decided that she had no other reason not to go to university. Because she loves History, she took up an Arts degree and planned to become a History teacher.

During her first year though, she happened to take some Stage 1 Psychology papers and like many of us, fell completely in love with Psychology.

“I decided to have Psychology and History as my majors and they actually complement each other really well,” Dr. Addis explained, “In History, you really learn to write well and to make an argument, and you need that in Psychology”.

It was during her Stage 2 and 3 Psychology classes with Dr. Lynette Tippett that Dr. Addis realized that she had a real passion for Psychology and research.

“I want[ed] to be like Lynette, I want[ed] to do this cool stuff, studying the brain, and so that really kind of grabbed me…then when I was in Stage 3 with her, I remember sitting in her lecture and thinking to myself… I was really interested in identity because of what I did in History. I thought well, what if you lose your memories of who you are, what happens to your identity? So then it became my Masters project with Lynette…that’s how I got into research. And, that first research experience for me was a life changing moment…or a life changing year”.

Up until then, Dr. Addis had been considering going into Clinical Psychology, like most of her colleagues as it was the most sought after postgraduate course. We jokingly told her that not much has changed at present. But her decision was made after experiencing what it was like to do research.

“When I did research it just really fit with my kind of personality and how I think about the world…being curious and trying to understand things, but still getting to meet people and work with people. I just loved it. It also lets me be a teacher too, which I also really loved as well”.

Dr. Addis did her PhD at the University of Toronto, and then did a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard.

“So from South Auckland to Harvard… Harvard was just the most amazing place to work, such a stimulating environment and everybody is buzzing with ideas and energy and it was just fabulous,” she added.

Of course, this was a big change in her life, but she pushed herself and resolved to try her hardest.

“That’s something I discovered you know,” Dr. Addis added, “it’s that opportunities come along, and you have to be open to taking them as well, open to changing direction if that’s something that really grabs you. I could have stayed and said, ‘I signed up for a History degree, so I’m going to do that’, but no, I’m going to change things, and I’m going to follow it [research] because that’s my passion”.

The Best Memories

We were then curious to find out what kind of memories had stuck with Dr. Addis throughout the years. We asked her what her best memories from undergrad were, and she shared with us her two favourites, the first one, involving accidentally kicking a girl sitting in front of her during one of her lectures.

“In HSB 1 (Human Sciences Building 1) then, you could kind of put your feet up the rail underneath the tables, and I had my foot up there. It slipped and it hit this girl on the shoulder. She turned around, looked at me… and then she ended up being in my History tutorial later that week, and we’ve been best friends ever since. Now I’m the godmother to her daughter that she had this year”.

Her second best memory of undergrad was when their Psych 305 class back then had the chance to visit the Med School to see actual brains, belonging to people who have passed.

“They were preserved but they had belonged to somebody, and that to me was really powerful because you realize that somebody has given themselves to Science because they feel strongly about future generations learning. I decided then that I wanted to donate my brain and donate my body to Science. That was quite a powerful moment really”.

Around the Globe and Back

Great opportunities come at a price. For Dr. Addis, travelling for the sake of her education and work had been one of the hardest things she had to do.

“Travelling all around the world is exciting, but it’s also a little bit nerve-wrecking to do these things on your own… I’m a very family oriented person and so I would say the biggest challenge for me was living overseas for 7 years, and being away from my family for years at a time…but having their support meant that it was the best thing I ever did in my life. It really made me an independent person, it broadened my horizons more than I could have ever imagined. It’s like what my research says,” she added, “if you haven’t experienced stuff, it’s hard to really imagine what it would be like, but now, I know what it’s like to be in these different institutions , and to live in different places. Now I have friends all over the world, which is a pretty cool thing”.

Once Dr. Addis had made it back home in New Zealand, she started her career in Auckland University and established her very own Memory Lab. It’s a team of students- Honours, Masters and PhD students, all working on different projects relating to memory and future thinking. At the moment, the Memory Lab team is looking into the reasons why the hippocampus may be active during imagination.

“We have always sort of thought of it as the memory brain region. And now we actually realize it’s more active when we imagine. It’s just an intriguing result when we do memory researches, and so we’ve been thinking a lot about why that might be and running different experiments to try and figure that out. And so far, we’ve found in one study that the hippocampus is really involved in forming memories of your future stimulations. If you’re trouble shooting or thinking about an upcoming event, the best thing for you as an organism, is to remember those stimulations, because then when you get into those experiences- when you actually face that event- you have some record of what the plan of attack you have thought of is”.

Sounds interesting? You can visit the Memory Lab website and find updates on their current researches here.


So speaking of research, we asked Dr. Addis if she’s ever experienced those “Eurkea!” type of moments, the ones similar to House or Patrick Jane from The Mentalist.

“I don’t have eureka moments. I don’t think I have those, because most of science is actually quite cumulative. It’s like little steps, and a lot of it is about chipping away at something all the time. Every day you do a little bit on it, and then a year later, you’ve done this huge study,”

“But,” Dr. Addis adds, “I do have these creative moments where I solve problems because research is a lot about solving problems…It usually happens when I’m driving or in the shower. I remember once having one ‘eureka’ moment when I had a thought paper for a graduate class when I was doing my PhD in Toronto. I was frying onions, and I just remembered it being like, ‘OH, I know what I’m going to write now!’”.

And because Dr. Addis specializes in Neuropsychology, she had the explanation for why there are “eureka” moments.

“You learned about the Default Network…when your mind is idling, it becomes very creative because you’re not being pulled by external stimuli. Your mind is putting things together, and I find that it happens to me a lot. So having time away from your Science can actually be really good…you’re not even conscious that you’re thinking and just processing stuff”.

After hearing about Dr. Addis’ story, we asked her, what was, in our opinion, the most important question of all- for our readers, aspiring Psychologists, and students like us.

The Secret to Success

It’s something that you’ve probably heard all too often, but hearing it personally from an expert just adds to the validity of this simple truth.

“I think hard work is really one of the major things,” said Dr. Addis. “I think people forget this. People sometimes think, oh, they’re just smart, they’re just getting good grades because they’re smart or something like that, but really, whenever you look at people that succeed, it’s the number of hours that they put in to what they want to do, to get where they want to be”.

It couldn’t have been said better. And haven’t we all been taught in our Psychology classes that those who believe in their efforts, like hard work, and not just their ability, like intelligence, have better chances of succeeding?

Dr. Addis then told us about one of the books that she has read, entitled “Outliers”.

“It’s a really good book, and it’s about successful people, and what makes successful people different…whenever they look at the lives of successful people, they have put…about 10,000 hours of time for expertise. So, I have worked really, really hard, and I still work really, really hard, and that’s because for one, I love what I do and that’s just so interesting. If you want to succeed, you have to put in the hours really”.

And of course, be persistent in what you want to achieve.

“Keep going. It doesn’t matter if things don’t work out because people, I think, also get put off by failure. But if I told you… if I counted out how many scholarships and how many applications were not successful for me, there’d be tons of them, because I just keep trying …and if you keep trying you’d get something”.

So it comes down to two simple things: Work hard, and don’t give up.

The Mind Reading Event

All good things come to an end, and soon enough, Marnelli and I had to wrap up our interview with Dr. Addis.

But if you want to see more of her, and get to know more about what she does, don’t fret, for the Mind Reading Event is happening very soon!

“It’s going to be a really exciting event, and it’s the first time we’ve ever done anything like this in New Zealand.

We’re setting up and introducing our audience to the process of how we run an MRI experiment and how we can use MRI to look at what kinds of cognitive processes are going on in the brain, and asking the question, ‘Can we use MRI to read people’s minds’. It’s quite a controversial topic within the science literature too.

So if people are interested in that kind of debate, and understanding how far we can push MRI and how we can use it to understand the brain then they should definitely come along”.

If you want to attend and are in need of more information, click here.


So that’s it, dear readers. We hope you have enjoyed this interview, and have been inspired by the words of a real expert. We know we have.

Until the next post!

3 thoughts on “Meet Dr. Donna Rose Addis

  1. Pingback: GAOP: Mad Hatter and Mr. Skeleton « sweets and brains

  2. Pingback: F.O.U.R. « sweets and brains

  3. Pingback: Meaning of Success: Donna Rose Addis | Now what?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s