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On the Job

To sleep, perchance to research

Erin Evans, a sleep researcher at the Brigham, is testing an experimental light for the International Space Station.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Erin Evans, a sleep researcher at the Brigham, is testing an experimental light for the International Space Station.

In the quest to understand the mystery of sleep, researcher Erin Evans has studied the effects of sleep deprivation in high-stress work situations, from astronauts to police and doctors.

Evans, a sleep medicine fellow at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, also helps hundreds of families improve the sleeping habits of their children. Even though she’s a sleep expert, Evans admits she’s constantly challenged by her 2-year-old son.

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“I thought I knew everything about sleep,” she said, “but he’s putting me through the wringer.”

You gave a seminar on how to help your child and yourself sleep better — what was the gist of the information?

Sleep in a young infant is a moving target, and while one 4-month-old might sleep through the night, another may need to nurse a few times. I believe there is no “one-size-fits-all” strategy. The most important thing is to develop a plan that is realistic and the family can implement with consistency.

How did you get interested in sleep as a research topic?

Sleep takes up a third of our lives. But why do we need to sleep so much? What is the point? We know now that sleep plays an important role in memory, learning, and cognition, but 10 years ago, it was more of a mystery. There continue to be many unanswered questions about sleep that intrigue me.

What are the different ways to test sleep?

It depends on what you’re looking at. Sleep duration can be studied with a watch-like device that has an accelerometer inside [to measure motion]. If we have more extensive questions, such as what does caffeine or light exposure do to sleep, we might use electrodes to look at brain waves.

What did you find in your study of astronauts?

I went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to speak to astronauts before and after Space Shuttle voyages. Astronauts sleep a little less in space and we wanted to find out why, and whether we can control this. We are now analyzing that data.

Do you ever take naps?

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I do, because I work the night shift, monitoring sleep studies. There’s a saying among sleep researchers: “Some must watch while some must sleep.”

When there are sleeping scenes in movies, what do they usually get wrong or right?

They are almost always wrong. I find myself yelling at the television. If someone is doing a sleep study, they’ll put electrodes on someone to find out about their dreams. This cannot happen — we look at brain wave activity, but can’t know what someone is dreaming about.

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.

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