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: Ayse Pinar Saygin, PhD 2006

Ayse Pinar Saygin

Ayse Pinar Saygin was born in Ankara, Turkey, where, except for one year as an exchange student in Texas, she completed her education. After finishing a BSc. in Mathematics at Middle East Technical University and an MSc. in Computer Science at Bilkent University, she moved to San Diego as a PhD student in Cognitive Science. After finishing her PhD, Ayse was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship by the European Commission, with which she worked at Jon Driver and Geraint Rees' labs at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Wellcome Trust Centre for Functional Neuroimaging, University College London. She then won a University Research Fellowship at the Vision Science Department, City University, London.

She's currently an Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego Department of Cognitive Science and directs the Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology lab. Her research explores how meaningful, biologically relevant stimuli are perceived, represented and grounded. A general goal of Ayse's work is establishing links between domains (and brain areas) traditionally considered to be "low level" or perceptual (e.g., sensory or motor processing) and those that are considered "high level" or complex (such as social cognition, language, attention). Her approach is to make use of what is known about the sensorimotor regions and processes in the brain, as well as properties of the nervous system, to help bootstrap the study of more complex domains.

She now lives in San Diego. In her spare time, she indulges her fondness for tacos and robots.

An Interview with Ayse Pinar Saygin

by Tristan Davenport

Can you tell us what attracted you to the Cognitive Science program at UCSD?

I was visiting a dozen universities in 2 weeks as a prospective graduate student. I was living in Turkey and flying back and forth was not feasible. It was February and there was still snow on the East Coast. Then, Liz Bates took me to the Marine Room at La Jolla Shores at sunset and that pretty much sealed the deal...

Of course my main motivation for coming to this department was not really the sun and the ocean. UCSD was my top choice because I could tell it was a truly interdisciplinary department and it was where I wanted to be.

How did you develop your research interests during your time as a student here?

I'd studied math and computer science, and I came here planning to do computational linguistics. I had no background in neuroscience or psychology. None. If you showed me a brain, I could tell the front from the back because I knew that the little wrinkly bit was in the back, but that was all I knew. I felt nervous about how little I knew, and I certainly did not envision focusing on cognitive neuroscience.

Soon, I discovered that I really felt at home doing experimental research and loved neuroscience. Faculty encouragement helped. I took neurobiology classes from Marty Sereno and Andrea Chiba. To my surprise, I did very well and enjoyed them. When I was intimidated about a new area or method, Liz Bates would say, "of course you can do it!" and she really believed it. After a while, trying to catch up with the field and learning how to use the tools I needed became part of the research process. I learned to delve into new fields, pick up new methods, and recruit collaborators. The feeling of not knowing enough never stopped, I just got used to it.

Did you always know you wanted a career in research?

Pretty much. I only had brief periods of considering other careers (opera singer, designer, architect). From a young age, I saw myself in a white coat, doing something science or technology related. Interestingly, perhaps because my father is an electrical engineer, when I was 6, I had inferred that this sort of work was men's work, such that when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said "it'll be a man's job". From elementary school through high school, I was always interested in science, doing projects at school and at home. After an unfortunate incident involving silver cyanide (Tip: don't leave it boiling in water on the stove), I took a break from experimental science and studied pure mathematics and computer science. I discovered cognitive science towards the end of college, and it just clicked. A few times, I've questioned my choice to stay in academic research, but overall, I love my work and I think this is a good path for me. I still don't have a white lab coat.

What do you think are the most important qualities of a good advisor?

Good advisors care about their students' success and take their mentoring responsibilities seriously. Beyond that, there is no formula. Someone who is an ideal advisor for one person can be a poor match for another. Also, the advisor is not the only party in the relationship. The student and his/her attitude towards the relationship is just as important. Like all relationships, the success of an advisor-trainee relationship takes effort and care on both sides. Mutual respect is essential, and both sides should always try to maintain honest and clear communication.

What do you wish you had known when you first enrolled in the Cognitive Science program here? (Or, alternatively: What do you think is important for new students in the program to be aware of?)

My advice is not to lose the big picture. You have a lot on your plate: classes, teaching, departmental and university events... But as a PhD student, you're primarily here to do original, high quality research. Regardless of your eventual career goals, give that a shot.

Also, understand why publishing is important and do it! You may have completed a study and feel ready to move on, but if you haven't published it, the work is not finished. In the publication process, you will need thick skin. Even the best researchers get rejections and often. I did not know that when I started.

Recognize the importance of community. Ideally your advisor can introduce you to people who work in your field. Don't see networking as a negative thing, as I did initially ("Oh, schmoozing is not my thing"). Relax and simply engage with other people in your field. You should naturally be interested in their work. Go to seminars, journal clubs, lab meetings, conferences. By all means, participate in discussion, but always be courteous to everyone.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

In my view, balance is not simply about editing a paper on a Sunday or grading papers after dinner. If your physical and mental health is good, and your relationships are not affected negatively by your work, then you're probably balanced. I pay attention to how my life is going as a whole. Sometimes I need a vacation, sometimes I need a day off, sometimes I need to buckle down and plow through some analyses on a weekend. It's worth mentioning that things can become more difficult during major life events, such as having children or a serious illness - but that's not specific to academia.

I learned that I cannot be a perfectionist about everything and have to prioritize. I try to make low-maintenance choices in my life. Last, and most importantly, I am lucky to have wonderful family, friends and colleagues. Their help and support goes a long way.

What's your favorite thing to do when you're not working?

My most recent attempt at a specific hobby was a couple of years ago when I took a comics and graphic novels workshop at Central St Martins in London. It was great but sadly, I have not found time for it since. Things I do are not very unusual: I travel a lot, although sometimes that involves working. I love and seek out live music. I watch a few movies a week and I read something that isn't work every day. I go to the beach, the zoo, and watch nature documentaries. I have a modest collection of art, vinyl toys, and mid-century household items. I try to do yoga and meditation. I spend time with my family and friends, a lot of whom are excellent cooks and musicians. I get to eat and listen to music, which is fantastic.

You're now setting up your own cognitive neuroscience lab. Why don't you give us a plug for any readers who might be interested in doing a lab rotation or being an undergraduate research assistant with you.

Thanks. It's very exciting to start up a new lab! One characteristic of our work is the use of multiple converging methods. Currently we run psychophysics and functional neuroimaging experiments. We're setting up studies with stroke patients. We also use EEG, MEG, TMS and test other clinical populations.

I'm open to hearing from students who are interested in our work. Rotations in the lab are typically hands on, geared towards acquiring skills applicable to cognitive neuroscience research. Students typically have individual or group projects that involve data collection and/or analysis. I meet with students regularly. We also have weekly lab meetings where we discuss recent papers and have guest speakers. About monthly, we have career development sessions and discuss topics such as publication, presentation, writing. Students have found these very useful. Interested students can read about joining the lab at our website: http://www.sayginlab.org/

Any advice for current Ph.D. students?

The most important thing to realize is that your PhD is what you make of it. Again, don't lose the big picture. In the end, at your defense or job talk, you will be telling people what original contribution you made to human knowledge. What do you want to say that day? It may be daunting to think about it this way, and you may feel like what you do is tiny and insignificant. These feelings are very common. Try to focus on the empowering side.

If you're excited about your work, you'll be able to weather the ups and downs. When you have setbacks, blaming the circumstances or other people will prove a waste of time. Only you can grab that research by its horns and get it done. If you're not excited about what you're doing, find a horn you want to grab.

If you come to the conclusion that research is not what you want to do with your life, that is not a failure. Find something that excites you and seek a way to do it. I don't know anyone who's spent time doing research who says the experience was not rewarding at all.

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.