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: Seana Coulson, 1997

Seana Coulson

Seana Coulson is a professor of cognitive science at UCSD in the same department where she received her degree. She heads the Brain and Cognition Lab where techniques from psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience are used to explore how people construct meaning.

Seana was born in Calgary (Canada), and as a child lived in Toronto (Canada), London (England), Philadelphia, and Carbondale (Illinois). She considers Carbondale to be her "home town". Her father was a medical school professor and with many scientists in her family she considered early on being a scientist. Other potential careers included novelist, journalist, advertising executive and philosophy professor. She went to Wellesley College where she studied philosophy and did a year abroad in Cambridge, England. She partied in New York City as a college graduate before diving into her graduate studies.

She’s a floor hockey regular, having played for almost 15 years once or twice per week. She also plays for the long-standing cognitive science softball team – the Earthpigs. Other hobbies include drinking beer (especially IPA), watching TV (especially MSNBC), and listening to jazz on the way to work (KSDS).

An Interview with Seana Coulson

by Jenny Collins

What is your area of research?

My lab is called the Brain and Cognition Lab. I study a range of topics but my main interests are in meaning construction. The questions are about how people find meaning in language and when interacting in the world. For example, how do you understand a painting? Or a photograph? Or how do we understand the interview situation we're involved in right now? People rely on perceptual, social, cultural, linguistic knowledge, and more. My lab uses methods from psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience to address these broad questions.

What did you study in college?

I did my undergraduate major in philosophy. I was interested in philosophy of mind, philosophy of language and ethics. My senior thesis in college was about the possibility of objective moral knowledge. I was arguing that the type of phenomena you see in discussions of ethical questions - the cultural conversations and social back and forth - also come up in much more objective domains like science. Objectivity is the product of negotiating, and depends on the possibility of people coming to an agreement on their concepts. I think that contrary to the folk model that "anything goes" in questions of morality, people who share cultural heritage in fact have enough common ground for meaningful negotiation to occur on moral topics. So in principle there is no reason you can't have objective moral knowledge.

My last year of college I also did work that got me closer to cognitive science. I took a cognitive psychology course that involved reading a lot of research articles. I ended up doing research with the professor from that class on artificial language learning which was really fun. I also took a music class where we programmed computers to compose music. As a class we visited the media lab at MIT where the people seemed so cool! During that visit I first heard about the cognitive science department that was being started at UCSD.

Did you know right away that you wanted to go to graduate school and become a professor?

As an undergraduate I was somewhat interested in grad school but when I was finishing college I was burnt out on school and thought it would be fun to try something more practical. So I went to work in publishing in New York City. Living there was a lot of fun! It was like Sex in the City except I didn't make anywhere near as much money as those girls did or go to those expensive places for lunch.

At a certain point though I realized I wanted to do something more academic because working in publishing was boring. I called the professor who I had worked with at Wellesley and it turned out she had just gotten a grant and needed a research assistant. I quit my job in publishing, went to work in her lab, and started applying to grad schools.

I had a much better, more focused attitude in grad school because of my two years in New York. I didn't think there was something else out there for me. I had already been out there and I knew that I would rather be in the ivory tower.

What was it like in the early days of the cognitive science department?

I was in the second class of graduate students in the cognitive science department and it was the first cognitive science department in the country! People were still really excited about establishing the department and doing something new that hadn't been done before. A lot of the core faculty were already there like Liz Bates, Don Norman, Marta Kutas and Helen Neville.

I remember one time after an orientation we were playing touch football out on a dusty field by the cog sci building. Marty Sereno, Anders Dale and Paul Maglio were all there. A bunch of people got hurt... it was really fun! After that we decided we should have an intramural flag football team.

What did you study in graduate school?

When I first started graduate school I was interested in moral reasoning. My second-year project was on how people reason about the morality of abortion. That was my initiation into cognitive linguistics with Gilles Fauconnier as my advisor. I was lucky that he and Mark Turner were coming up with conceptual blending theory at that time. I was there from the beginning so later in my career other researchers were receptive to my ideas. It helps to have a famous advisor!

One of the things that was pivotal for putting me on my current research trajectory was a pragmatics seminar co-taught by Marta Kutas and Gilles. Marta talked about patient studies and Gilles talked about the linguistics background. I thought it would be great to combine these different perspectives. When I wrote my thesis a lot of it was theoretical meandering about conceptual blending theory but I also incorporated an experimental component through studying jokes. That's what led me down the ERP path.

What are ERPs?

ERP stands for "event related potential." To get the ERP you record someone's on-going EEG (electro-encephalogram) during perceptual, cognitive, or motoric "events". For example, perceptual event might be seeing a blue square flash on a computer screen, a cognitive event might be reading a word, and a motor event might be pushing a button with your right index finger. By averaging the EEG signal every time a particular type of events occurs, you derive a record of electrical brain activity that's temporally correlated with the processing of (say) blue squares. The interesting thing is that it's possible to relate the size and latency of different peaks in the ERP to different aspects of perceptual, cognitive, and motoric processing. It's a great tool because it's relatively cheap to acquire, and it's a continuous record of brain activity related to different sorts of cognitive events. Because language unfolds over time, this sort of real time information about processing is invaluable.

After I got my Ph.D. I wanted to learn more about how to do good ERP experiments. There is a lot of cognitive ERP work out there but there isn't as much good work as there should be. My orientation was from philosophy and linguistics and I didn't necessarily think experimentally. I did a post doc at University of Arizona where I worked with Cyma van Petten. Working with Cyma definitely helped teach me about empirical work - she's one of the best experimentalists in the world.

What is your favorite part about being a professor?

I like a lot about my job. I guess my favorite thing is that somebody would pay me to think about things. I would be doing this anyway - reading about what people have learned, thinking about it, coming up with my own ideas about how things work and testing them out.

How do you find a balance between work and home life?

Ha! I've never been a big one for balance. People should know that an occupational hazard of being an academic is spending too much time at work.

What skills are important to succeed in your position?

One skill (that I don't have) that's really important is time management. It seems like the best people are good at that. Other important skills are editing ability, writing, being able to incorporate information quickly and remembering things. One thing I've learned over the years is how to read articles - you learn how to get the information you need relatively quickly and remember it later.

Do you have any advice for students going on the job market?

One thing I learned at UCSD is if you want something done you have to do it yourself. If you have some idea about how things could be better, you can try to get someone else to do it for you but the only way to really ensure it will get done and done well is to take the initiative yourself.

Another thing I wish someone had told me is your first job out of college is likely to suck (unless you get very lucky). If you hate your first job you shouldn't be depressed about life - you should look for another job. It takes a while to develop contacts so you can get a job where you can be happy. After college you feel like you're ready for the world but the world isn't necessarily ready for you.

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