3 alumnae pursue promising careers in cognitive science

October 28, 2019 — by Vicky Bai and Nicole Lu

2019 alumna Elaine Fan stared at the assignment in front of her, surprised by the results of the experiment her University of Pennsylvania class had done earlier. The class had been learning about prosopagnosia, a disorder that impairs one’s ability to recognize faces, and had matched images of faces from different angles and orientations as part of their simulation. Something about the upside-down faces made it harder for the students to match them with the correct image.

The class is one of many Fan is taking this semester as a cognitive science major. It is a major that seems to be gaining popularity among college undergraduates. 

This major blends a variety of concentrations including Cognitive Neuroscience, Computation and Cognition and Language and Mind, as well as the topics of linguistics, psychology, artificial intelligence, philosophy, neuroscience and anthropology.

For those interested in pursuing cognitive science majors, there are a variety of potential jobs ranging from marketing assistants to software engineers.

“Throughout high school, it was always difficult for me to know what I wanted to study,” Fan said. “It was intimidating, as the choice seemed to hold so much weight. There were classmates around me that seemed to know exactly what they wanted to do, and they could line up their extracurriculars and classes to complement their intended area of study, whereas I couldn’t even decide which subjects I liked.”

It was not until her parents brought up the major over the dinner table during the college application season that she decided to look into the subject. 

As she researched further, she was drawn toward how interdisciplinary the major is.

“Most of these subjects that fall under cognitive science piqued my interest, so I thought ‘why not?’” Fan said.

Still, Fan was unsure about the major and what she wanted to study, even when submitting her college applications. 

“For most of the schools I applied for, I didn’t really put cognitive science as my first choice,” Fan said. “Even now, whenever classmates ask what I’m majoring in, it feels weird to say ‘cognitive science.’”

As of right now, Fan is leaning toward a concentration in Computation and Cognition, a combination of computer science and cognitive science. 

Despite her initial concerns about focusing on a newer major, Fan finds the environment at UPenn and her classes highly rewarding and informative.

As part of Fan’s courses in psychology and linguistics, she has participated in a variety of psychology experiments including a study that examined how people make choices for others. Another drawing communication study paired Fan with a different student for a Pictionary-like activity in which they sent drawings back and forth, developing a set of symbols to convey what they needed.

Fan is currently taking Intro to Psychology, Intro to Linguistics, and a writing seminar on sleep.

“So far, the classes have been super interesting, so I’m feeling pretty good about my decision to go into cognitive science,” Fan said.

Sanjana Melkote, a 2019 alumna studying at UC Berkeley, was in the same situation, not exactly knowing what major she wanted to pursue. 

“It was kind of a shot in the dark because there were no cognitive science classes or programs in high school that mirror a cognitive science major program, but I am really enjoying the classes I’m taking now,” Melkote said. 

The variety of professional careers cognitive science leads to are what makes the major so interesting to Melkote, and she thinks that “being able to keep my options and interests open is what I like most about the major.”

Similarly, Alexandra Li, a 2019 alumna, chose Computation and Cognition, a relatively new major at M.I.T.

“I picked it because I've always loved coding and could see myself doing it for a career, but I also didn’t want to sit at a cubicle for the rest of my life and code,” Li said. “Instead, I wanted more of something that I could use to help people and actually impact others.”

Coming from a family of software engineers, Li remembers her mom telling her that she couldn’t see her daughter as a pure CS major just because she felt Li could do more. This influenced Li’s desire to pursue more than computer science in college.

During high school, Li did research that was in the intersection of data analysis, machine learning and neuroscience. 

“I found it honestly inspiring, the way that I could build something with nothing, and my laptop had the ability to change people's lives,” Li said. “I've never excelled in biology, but learning about humans and how things work in the body and the brain is just fascinating and undiscovered.” 

Li admits that one thing she dislikes about the major is how new it is at M.I.T. Not many people have declared it, so she feels as though she can’t really ask for advice or help.

Despite the lack of knowledge surrounding the major, the success stories of those before them assure the three alumnae, who are generally excited for the experience. 

“Cognitive Science is so broad, and I’ve only really experienced a tiny section of it,” Fan said, “but I really like what I’m learning so far.”

‘Editor’s note: All three alumnae were editors of The Falcon last year. 

 

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