Meet the Directors: Spotlight #5: Judy Pa

Dr. Judy Pa is an Associate Professor of Neurology at the Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute with the Keck School of Medicine at USC. She also serves as director of The Pa Laboratory, where she researches the effects of Virtual Reality on the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer's Disease.


Tell us about your background.

I was born and raised in Las Vegas, NV, the town that never sleeps. When I left Las Vegas to attend undergrad at UC Irvine, I went into culture shock when restaurants and stores closed at 9PM. Where would I get a late-night bowl of pho?

I knew I wanted to study human behavior from the age of 14, because I was fascinated by how the mind worked. During my junior year in undergrad, my fascination for the mind became forever linked to the physical properties of the brain when I took Dr. Kourosh Saberi’s Sensation and Perception class. I’ve not looked back since.


What sparked your interest in VR/AR?

Our lab is grounded in Alzheimer’s prevention trials and ways to improve brain health. Moving beyond our epidemiological understanding of how risk factors relate to Alzheimer’s disease, we aim to discover novel ways to treat risk. Through the passion and dedication of a PhD student in our lab, Ashwin Sakhare, and a team of creative minds, we embarked on a new journey into VR back in 2017 in which health meets technology meets neuroscience. 3 years later, we have a promising and clever design that we are testing in a funded NIH clinical trial. Whew, it’s been quite the ride!


Which of your professional accomplishments are you most excited about?

For our VR work, I’m most proud of the team of dedicated students, staff, and faculty who have come together for a common goal - to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The interdisciplinary approach of our project required many different views and expertise to get this far in a few short years. I am grateful to everyone who’s hands have touched our project, whether for a short summer rotation or a longer years stay. Hopefully, our project will make an impact on the field of brain health and Alzheimer’s prevention.


Is there anything on the horizon of VR and health that you’re especially looking forward to?

We are in an exciting time for the coupling between VR and health. With a push towards novel forms of treatment and prevention, more studies are gaining momentum and recognition for their promise of improving lives. From Dr. Rizzo’s BraveMind project for PTSD to Dr. Liew’s REINVENT project for stroke to Dr. Finley’s Overcome project for Parkinson’s disease, it’s becoming more and more recognized that VR/AR holds much promise for healthcare.


What advice would you give to those who wish to follow a similar path?

I don’t know what advice I can give to those who want to follow a similar path. But honestly, at the end of the day, if you aren’t jumping out of bed to get to work and loving what you do, then it might be time to re-evaluate. Time is something we will never get back (unless you’re Dr. Strange).


Anything you are passionate about, aside from AR/VR?

When I’m not working, I love walking in nature and enjoying the views. Oh, and hanging out with my kids. Yep, you can be both a mom and a tenured professor-scientist!


To learn more about Dr. Judy Pa, visit The Pa Laboratory's website. You can also follow her work on VR and Alzheimer's Disease at the laboratory's Twitter account, @ThePaLab_USC.