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.

Alumnus of the Month: Navdeep Dhillon, 2008

Navdeep Dhillon

Navdeep Dhillon was born and raised in the greater San Diego area, with a short interlude in the Pacific Northwest. He is currently a Usability Coordinator and Instructional Designer at a small software company in Encinitas, called Suddenly Smart. He enjoys working for a company that produces an eLearning tool called SmartBuilder, which is designed to empower instructional designers to create effective, interactive, and engaging eLearning, not just the boring tell-and-test model that plagues so much of the corporate and non-profit training curriculum.

An Interview with Navdeep Dhillon

by Jenny Collins

How would you sum-up your experience at UCSD as a whole?

Hmm... exponential? It took me a while to really incorporate myself into the culture of UCSD as a transfer student living 40 miles away. I was a political science major who was studying a topic simply because I had to declare before transferring. After a year of dozing off during long dull lectures and long dull commutes, I decided that I needed to find a field that fit my interests. I had heard of Cognitive Science recently and that the major had started at UCSD. I decided to take the introductory Cogs 1 class. I was instantly struck with not just the fascinating nature of the major, but also the unique perspective and disposition of the department. It seemed like the department possessed both a humility and sense of adventure that struck a chord with me. Not only did it charge into trying to answer the most difficult of questions, but it was unafraid to say "we can apply what we know to these cognitive practices, but this part over here... yeah, we have no idea how this works". While I doubt that any of my professors actually said these words, it was readily apparent that they realized they were out there on the edge of describing human cognition, and were open to learning something new every day. My burgeoning infatuation with Cognitive Science also got me interested in the Cognitive Science Student Association. I wanted to share and learn from other people that had discovered this totally awesome field. I think this was one of the better of my decisions at UCSD, because it brought me in closer contact with the faculty and the students. It also taught me the importance of networking, the unofficial social infrastructure that seems to be the underlying method of how things get done. What? Yes, I'll get to my point - my experience at UCSD. So by the time I was filling out my graduation paperwork, I was also putting the finishing touches on my honors project, marking the final grades on the papers I'd graded as an IA, was recruiting new officers to replace my role as CSSA president, and looking for my keys on the way out the door because I was running late to my internship at the company I now work for. I cannot imagine being so enthused, harried, or engaged by any other major that the university had to offer, and my experience at UCSD really started when I found Cog Sci.

What did you specialize in as a Cog Sci major?

I actually didn't specialize, which a lot of people don't realize they can do and still get a B.S. I don't generally like being told what to do, or restricted in the classes that I take. If I were to say which field I pursued the most, it would have to be distributed cognition, both in human and animal societies. A part of distributed cognition that I was particularly interested in is developing skill. I suppose eLearning is sort of along the same lines, so let's pretend I planned that.

Can you expand on what eLearning is?

Sure. eLearning is basically any learning content that is delivered via computers. With the growth of the Internet and corporate Intranets that now touch just about every role in an organization, eLearning has seen a drastic rise over instructor-led training. Everything from new hires to updated disclosure policies to the rolling out of a new inventory management system requires employees to learn something new. I remember my first job in high school was a sales person at Sears. I spent hours and hours sitting in front of a computer screen that told me how TVs work, how to close sales, how to use the registers, as well as customer service courses. It was the most boring thing in the world. Everything I actually learned at the job I learned on the sales floor when I finally got through the online courses. That is an example of bad eLearning. Think of the worst classes you've ever had where you are told a bunch of information, and expected to regurgitate it on a test at some point. Do you remember that information today? Now think of the classes that you really got something out of, the ones where you were interacting with the content, doing projects or presentations and putting what you were learning into practice. I think Hutchins' 102B class was one of my favorites at UCSD for this reason. Anyway, this is the type of eLearning that we promote at Suddenly Smart. We offer a tool for instructional designers (the people who know how to teach at a certain company) to build eLearning courses with simulations, branching scenarios, and immersive and contextual games.

What do you do at Suddenly Smart?

My role at the company is all over the place. Let's say a clinic needs to train their front desk employees how to help clients that don't speak English, when to use translators, and to whom they can release patient records. The clinic decides to use SmartBuilder. I train their instructional designers on how to use our tool. They then go off and create the eLearning courses for the front desk employees. But when they run into problems or want to make a particularly complicated exercise, they might come back to me and I get to help them work out kinks or make suggestions on how to make it even more engaging. It's my job to help them put the idea they have in their head into reality - virtual reality, I guess, since it's still all computer based.

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

The most valuable thing that I learned from the Cognitive Science department was how to see thinking in the real world. I'm in a career where I am engaged in meta-teaching. I teach instructional designers how to use a tool, but I also get to teach them how to push it to the limits and really engage the learners they are creating courses for. In my role supporting these instructional designers, I also get to see what they are building with the fresh eyes of one of their learners, and offer suggestions to make things more interactive. Another valuable lesson I took from Cog Sci is to look at things as being situated in the practices of an organization. Every one of our clients comes from a different company or non-profit that has its own practices and regulations, not to mention the industry standards and expectations set by much larger software providers. Being able to provide solutions that are flexible enough to run this gauntlet, while still keeping an eye on the goal of creating interactive eLearning feels a lot like a 102C project.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Does showing up on time count? More seriously, working for a small company is wonderful because it keeps me so busy with a number of different responsibilities. But of course, that's also the most challenging part of the job, because I'm always trying to find more to time to work on the big picture stuff.

What are possible career paths or promotional opportunities from your current position?

I'm pretty lucky where I am. As part of a small but growing company, I get to try on just about any hat the company has to offer. As the company grows and acquires new employees, I get to (perhaps regrettably) choose my favorite departments and manage a subset of them. As we hire new people, I also get more time to concentrate on larger projects, such as in-depth usability studies. If a larger corporation decides that they simply must buy us out *koff koff*, I suppose I'd either stay on and try to grow the software, or go for a complete switch and pursue a career with a humanitarian NGO. This probably ties in more with my experience with the CSSA than the Cog Sci department or my job, but I would like to spend some time working with an organization looking to improve basic standards of living.

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

Brewing and drinking beer - San Diego is home to a ridiculous number of world-class breweries. Apart from that, I'm currently working with artists infinitely more talented than myself to create a video game. I'm also learning the mandolin, and enjoy getting out to climb, hike, and bike as much as possible.

What advice would you give to current students?

Do everything that you can now. You want to go into research? Take a 199. Want more marketable skills? Take courses in the direction of your interest. Looking to get a job in a certain industry? Seek an internship in that field. Not only does it give you a real understanding of what it is that you think that you want, but it will give you professional and academic contacts that you can leverage when you graduate. Get involved and make the most of your time at a university, in whatever capacity makes the most sense for your goals.

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