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.
Alexandra Horowitz is a Term Assistant Professor of Psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University, where she has taught for five years. She has also taught in biology and philosophy departments since earning her doctorate in Cognitive Science in 2002.
In September, Scribner published her first book, "Inside of a dog: What dogs see, smell, and know", which made the New York Times bestseller list. She is currently working on a second book about bringing attention to the ordinary, also for Scribner.
She lives in Manhattan with her husband Ammon Shea, also a writer; her dog and sometimes subject Finnegan; and her newborn son, Ogden Thelonious Horowitz Shea.
What first drew you to UCSD?
I was looking for a true interdisciplinary cognitive science program: one in which philosophers were talking to psychologists were exchanging ideas with neuroscientists. This department is that program.
What parts of your time at UCSD do you look back on most fondly?
I had some great colleagues in my co-grad-students – in Cognitive Science and in affiliated departments. We were a bit of an intellectual melting pot, complementing each other's backgrounds nicely. I also enjoyed taking classes outside of the department: learning sign language for no reason other than the interest in learning it; sitting in on classes with Bradbury and Vehrencamp in Biology, Data Structures in Computer Science, and attending various Philosophy colloquia. Oh, and glass blowing late into the night in the Grove.
Could you tell us a little bit about your new book?
"Inside of a dog" is my attempt to use information about the basic equipment of dogs (his sensory, behavioral, and cognitive capacities) to try to understand what it is like to be a dog – i.e., the dog's point of view. I write about the acuity of the dog nose, the meanings of tail wags, and review the flurry of recent studies (including my own) on the cognition of dogs. The book is written for dog owners, anyone keen on animals and the minds of animals, or just someone interested in science translated for the non-scientist. And for dogs, of course.
Are there particular challenges associated with being an animal researcher in a department full of human researchers?
In my case, I don't think so. Dogs may not have been considered to be interesting cognitive subjects when I was beginning my graduate work, but they are now. And studying dogs has had an unexpected boon: low laboratory costs. I go where the dogs are: in dog parks and at owners' homes.
Why do you think dogs have recently gone from uninteresting to interesting? Is this part of some deeper shift we are experiencing in the cognitive sciences?
An interest in how other animals' mental abilities reflect or contrast with our own has been growing in cognitive science and psychology for a few decades. This study of "comparative cognition" now has a great head of steam. Unless we are only interested in animals who are phylogenetically closest to us, it is inevitable that we look at other animals, especially social animals. And dogs are right underfoot: we finally tripped over them.
What part of your job now do you enjoy the most?
In my research, dealing with my ever-cooperative, guileless subjects, the dogs. In my writing, dealing with my ever-cooperative, guileless subjects, the dogs. And also sequestering myself away in the library and writing for hours on end.
What have you learned through your research on dogs that people may find surprising?
That depends on people's threshold for "surprise". On the one hand, "the dog" is a topic about which it is tempting to think that one already knows everything there is to know, given how accustomed we are to interacting with them. I think that the notion that dogs can suit their attention-getting behavior to levels of others' inattention – using mild attention-getters when a dog is standing staring at them blankly; more serious attention-getters when a dog is playing with another dog – is fairly surprising. Among others' research, I was astonished to realize just how acute the dog's olfactory capacity is: in my book I suggest that the dog's smelling ability includes the ability to, in some sense, smell time. If anyone is not surprised at that, I tip my hat to them.
Do you have any advice for young researchers?
Yes: never take advice from recent alums.
To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.