Cognitive Science Alumni

Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.

The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.

The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.

Alumna of the Month: Amaya Becvar Weddle, 2008

Amaya Becvar Weddle

Amaya Becvar Weddle grew up in El Paso, TX. She studied chemistry at Amherst College and graduated in 1997, then went on to receive a Master's degree in Biochemistry from UCSD in 2001. Amaya completed a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science at UC San Diego working with Professors Jim Hollan and Ed Hutchins of the Distributed Cognition and Human-Computer Interaction Laboratory. Her dissertation was on the role of the body in professional education, and how technology changes the way students are trained.

Amaya considers herself to be an anthropologist at heart - she jokingly refers to herself as "a professional people-watcher." In her work she often uses ethnographic methods to study the social and cognitive impacts of technology, and applies these findings to design. Currently, Amaya is a usability researcher at a small consulting firm in called theUEgroup. She lives in San Jose, CA with her husband, Shane, and her two kitties, Ghostie and Spooky.

An Interview with Amaya Becvar Weddle

by Brynn Evans

What company do you work for and what do you do in your current job?

I'm a "Humane Technology Artisian" for theUEgroup, a small usability consulting firm in San Jose. I do research and design work for a number of different companies. My current projects really span the gamut of topics - I'm working on a remote control interface for implanted spinal cord electrodes for pain control, designing the packaging and applicators for some prescription cosmetics products, and putting together an integrated health and wellness system.

What is your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part of the job is the brainstorming. I love being able to talk about designs with other creative individuals, and then take these ideas to users and see what they think.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

The clients! Being a consultant is challenging in ways I never expected. You really take on a different kind of mediation role that I hadn't experienced in academia. Sometimes you can come up with a fantastic new design direction that users love, and the clients don't like it. And since they are paying the bills, you need to stay within the constraints they spell out. The nice thing about consulting, though, is that at the end, you get to walk away. The clients are stuck with all of the internal politics of their business.

What are the skills that you are called upon to use daily in your work?

I'm called upon to use a lot of skills I honed in grad school. Organization, writing, creativity, and time managment are all important. Additionally, being able to make a quick and confident judgment about research directions is essential. For instance, last week my boss sent me over some documents from a potential client. We had been approached by a company that makes voting machines for US elections. "Should we take this on?" he asked me. "Let me know tomorrow." I had to quickly scan two 200 page government documents to see what would be involved with doing usability testing on voting machines so that they can be officially certified. I had to tell my boss how many people I thought should be tested, what a test would look like, and what extra equipment we would need to purchase. If you think about it, he essentially asked me to write up a proposal not unlike a second year project in just a few hours. My point is that in a consulting job, you are called upon to be an expert - and having confidence to do this is something that you can develop in a Ph.D. program.

What made you decide to work in industry instead of staying in academia?

This was a really hard call for me to make. While in my last year in the Ph.D. program I taught a few classes myself, and LOVED it. I think what I liked about teaching is a) taking difficult concepts and explaining them in simple terms, b) seeing my education and knowledge be used towards really practical means. What ultimately led me away from an academic career is that I wanted to take the opportunity to learn about the business world. How could I truly be teaching the next generation about what's most important to know in the field of HCI if I didn't really know? Now that I'm out in the world, I'm learning tons every day about practical things in research and design that can make a real difference in the way user experiences can be crafted. I plan to eventually get back into teaching, but with the benefit of a few solid years of experience under my belt.

Is there any other advice you would like to share?

Figure out what excites you, and do it! When I was young, I did what I thought I was expected to do based on family and social pressure I had internalized. It took being miserable in a Ph.D. program in Chemistry for me to wake up and realize that it was my life and time is too precious to NOT be doing what I was most excited about. I realized that was people and ideas, not just messy molecular interactions in eppendorf tubes. It seems small, but I was terrified to make the leap into a new career direction. But once I had aligned myself along the path that I was most passionate about, things got easy. And really fun. When I was younger, I really struggled with how I could balance these two sides of myself - the artist/creative side and the scientist/analytical side. It turns out that doing user experience work allows you to do BOTH design and research. Often on the very same day!

What is your favorite thing to do when you are not working?

Crafting. Creating is what I mean, really. I'm fortunate to be married to a really creative guy - who is a great compliment to me. Recently, Shane and I fixed up a 1973 VW bus - painted it with sunflowers, built a wooden deck on top, and redid the internal workings. I am also really into crocheting, metalwork, and jewlery making. Shane and I are hoping to sell some of our recent work in some local art events. We just started a website for our stuff called Hearts and Robots.

How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?

I go home at 6PM. I make time to exercise. I take weekends completely off. I first started doing this in grad school, believe it or not - I used to work all the time as an undergrad. It's just something I'm not willing to compromise on anymore. I realized a long time ago that I've got to take care of my heart and soul to do my best work.

To Nominate Someone

To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at alumnusofthemonth@cogsci.ucsd.edu.