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: Julia Houck-Whitaker, 2003

Julia Houck-Whitaker

Julia Houck-Whitaker is the Research & Development manager at Adaptive Path, a User Experience design company based in San Francisco. Adaptive Path's Research & Development efforts focus on identifying design problems that are important to work on in the world, but that the company isn't necessarily being paid to address. The R&D projects that Julia has successfully piloted to completion include, a concept called Charmr, a user centered design for a combined glucose pump and monitor for diabetics, and Aurora, a vision for the future of the web browser.

Before joining Adaptive Path, Julia was the Director of User Experience at Bolt | Peters. Nate Bolt, a UCSD alumnus, founded Bolt | Peters and is currently the CEO and President. While at Bolt | Peters, Julia oversaw the companies User Experience consulting business. She managed and led qualitative and quantitative user-research projects for clients such as Oracle, Hallmark, and Greenpeace.

Her interest and passion for user-centered design began while studying at UCSD where she majored in Cognitive Science and focused on Human Computer Interaction. She also worked with the Distributed Cognition Lab on projects focusing on strategic planning in conjunction with the San Diego Super Computer.

An Interview with Julia Houck-Whitaker

by Brynn Evans

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

I work for Adaptive Path, a super cool design company based in San Francisco. We focus on user experience design and our projects range from web design to mobile phone design to retail space design. Our mission is to create great experiences that improve people's lives. I manage our Research & Development efforts. R&D at Adaptive Path is where we take on projects that are fun and interesting, but that we're not necessarily paid to do. For example, we did a project that looked at how the diabetes glucose pump and monitor could be redesigned, based on user needs and another project that re-imagined the web browser. The idea is to re-imagine solutions to problems that many companies think they've solved, but according to the people that try to use the existing products, there's still a lot of work to be done. We share the ideas that we come up with the world. It's fun and inspiring.

What is your favorite part of the job?

My favorite parts of my job are the amazing unexpected ideas that people come up with, and the great people that I get to work with.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Managing everything that needs to get completed in a creative environment. Good Ideas take time to refine. I'm regularly managing expectations in all directions so people can have the time they need to be creative, while also creating the right amount of structure so we regularly share ideas to the world. I haven't perfected that part of the job, but I like to think I'm getting better at it.

Why did you choose Cognitive Science at UCSD?

I chose Cognitive Science at UCSD because I enjoyed a biological psychology class I took with Professor Stretch the first quarter of my freshman year. It was a challenging class, but I learned a ton about our brains and how they work. I researched classes that were like that and noticed that a lot of them were offered through the Cognitive Science Department. Then I took an Human Computer Interaction (HCI) class with Professor Hollan. In his class, I realized how many interesting problems there were to work on in the HCI space, and how these problems impacted our day to day lives. I also really enjoyed working in groups to come up with possible solutions. The classes were fun, fulfilling and challenging in ways that other course work wasn't.

How did your education at UCSD train you for what you are doing today?

What I do today is just like the group projects I worked on in many of my Cognitive Science classes, except I have to manage a budget too now. The course material was obviously relevant (many of the challenges we take on Adaptive Path involve HCI). The group work, and discussions we had about the work during my Cog Sci classes was very similar to what I get to participate in at Adaptive Path. That's one of the reasons I love it.

What was the most valuable thing you learned while in the Cognitive Science department at UCSD?

How to play well with others. It's an important lesson.

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

It's a strong value of my own and the company I work for, so to create that for myself in my work isn't that challenging. I carefully map out my time each day so I can get done what I need to get done in both my professional life and my personal life. I also make sure I have things I'm committed to in my personal life, so work doesn't take up my personal time.

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