Willa Bass walked down the graduation aisle for the third time in her life in May to receive her second masters degree. And this 67-year-old mother of four and at one time cancer researcher is still not ready to stop learning. Instead, she, along with one of her Fresno State professors Dr. Karl Oswald, hopes to have her 5 1/2 study on memory and aging published in a scientific journal.
It was when her youngest son headed for college, after homeschooling all four of her boys -- Mark, Sam, Luke and Tim -- that she decided to hit the textbooks once again, even though she already has an undergraduate degree in liberal arts and a masters degree in cell biology from Cal Poly in 1972. She began taking classes at Oakhurst Community College Center and her interest in memory was spurred while taking a psychology class from Dr. Marcia Freedman, who encouraged her to pursue the study of memory.
Willa decided to do so and entered the 60 plus program at Fresno State -- a waiver for seniors wishing to further their education for only $5 a semester. She studied memory through ancient history, cognitive psychology and neuro-physiology to study memory. The purpose of her study -- to determine if method of loci improved memory.
In Homer's 'Odyssey,' she looked at early traditions, before there was writing, and how memory was very important. Those that spoke needed a way to memorize and recite. She said she picked the 'Odyssey' because she wanted to read it in a week and see how much she would remember using the loci method -- a memory method that puts images in places. She had a young audience and a senior audience use the method of loci over a 30-minute period and found that it worked well for college students but wasn't as affective for seniors. Although it does work for seniors, it takes more effort and time, she said. She She said she found that the method of loci really does improve information retention.
Seniors from the Grandmother's Club and the Oakhurst Lutheran Church participated in the study.
"The older people up here were absolutely terrific about doing it," Willa said.
A senior herself, Willa had only good things to say about going back to school at this point in her life.
"Cognitively speaking, it's really good for you," she said. "It really keeps your mind sharp and helps you to remember. Once you retire, the idea of having a purpose and something to contribute is an issue, but school gives you something of value. It was really fun. We (Willa and David) were both enriched by it."
David said he was not surprised when Willa decided that she wanted to go back to school.
"That was Willa and I knew she'd figure a way to go back," he said. "She's always studying something and she's very tenacious. It's always been our family thing. Someone is always studying and going somewhere and Willa's been behind that."
Willa said her inspiration is two local seniors who continually inspire her as they keep learning -- they are 95-year-old Sue Boyer, Willa's mom, and 96-year-old Virginia Anderson, Willa's aunt. She said her sons also are an encouragement and that David was extremely patient through the late hours studying, the research, and the many trips to Fresno. Willa said he was her "guinea pig" and he even cooked meals so she could study.
"I'm a house husband," said David, laughing.
Willa said having professors the age of your children gives you perspective. She even had a class with one of her sons and was friends with his future wife before they began dating.
Both Willa and David said the professors went out of their way to help and were always encouraging.
Oswald, Willa's thesis adviser, said learning at any age is important.
"I think everyone should be a lifelong learner, whether it be through going to back school, reading, (or) writing," he said. "Research is crystal clear that we can all be buffered from the cognitive aging if we stay cognitively active throughout our lives."
He said that not only did Willa benefit cognitively from her studies but she also helped Fresno State and the Psychology Department by contributing to the production of research.
As Willa's adviser, Oswald met with her regularly to guide her through all aspects of her research project -- from writing to teaching her statistics. Even Oswald, who is a Coarsegold resident and has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from Duke University, where he studied human memory, including cognitive aging, said he learned a great deal by mentoring Willa's master's thesis.
He said there is very little published research showing that a simple memory I can reduce proactive interference in older adults but he said that Willa demonstrated this very clearly.
"Through extensive reading of previous research, she mastered the literature and identified a missing piece in our understanding of memory and aging," he said. "She found a way to reduce the common memory problem in older adults of intruding thoughts getting in the way of remembering new information. This is important because Willa, using solid empirical methodology, added to our understanding of human memory."
Although they are not yet sure what scientific journal they will submit Willa's research to, they will decide once she has a good working manuscript.
"When one discovers a significant finding in research, it is important to distribute that information to the scientific community," Oswald said.
He said that after years of Willa's tireless effort, her master's thesis was "simply excellent." She received the Merry West Outstanding Reentry Student Award, which, according to Oswald, recognizes the individual who exhibits outstanding academic performance as a returning student.
"The Psychology Department Awards Committee reviews all nominees for each award and then selects the most deserving individual," Oswald said. "It was deemed that Willa was the most deserving for this award based on her exemplary academic performance and outstanding thesis. Her name has been added to a plaque that hangs in the Psychology Department as permanent recognition of Willa's hard work. She is certainly deserving of this honor."
Willa said receiving the award was a complete surprise. And now that she has received her Master of Arts in interdisciplinary studies and she is no longer a student, she's a little sad that it's over.