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: Sian Beilock, 1997

Sian Beilock

 Sian Beilock is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at The University of Chicago. She received her B.S. in Cognitive Science from the University of California, San Diego in 1997 and PhDs in both Kinesiology and Psychology from Michigan State University in 2003. Dr. Beilock's research is funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation (CAREER award). Her research is routinely covered in the media (e.g., CNN, New York Times, NPR, Wall Street Journal) and she was highlighted as one of four “Rising Stars” across all academic disciplines by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2005.

Information about her new book, Choke, can be found here:

An Interview with Sian Beilock

by Tristan Davenport

Your new book, Choke, is getting great reviews, both on Amazon and in the popular press. Can you tell us what it's about?  
Choke tells the story of the science behind human performance. The book is aimed at a broad audience and uses science (my own research and many other people's work), stories, and interesting facts to shed light on why people often fail to perform their best when the stakes are high - in academics, athletics, and the business world - and what can be done to ensure success when the pressure is on.

Does all of your research bear on improving human performance? What else interests you, academically?
I would say that all my work investigates the cognitive and neural substrates of skill learning as well as the mechanisms by which performance breaks down in high-stress or high-pressure situations. However, Choke only touches on a subset of this work. I am also very interested in, for instance, how the body and motor experience contributes to how we understand abstract concepts in science and math. Often talked about using the term embodied cognition, I use knowledge of how motor experience changes our cognitive and neural functioning to enhance learning. I don't talk about this component of my work in Choke, but I am actually just starting a second book about what we know about mind-body interactions and what this says about education, social interactions, and more.

Embodied cognition is also a hot topic here at UCSD. Could you talk a little about the specific issues that interest you?
I am specifically interested in how theories of embodied cognition can inform education in action rich science, technology, engineering and math domains (e.g., physics). We are using the idea that experience performing a particular action can change how the brain processes language about that action to develop physics lab experiences (e.g., where students become part of a physical system themselves) that aid students' understanding of physics concepts such as angular momentum.

Do you feel that CogSci at UCSD was a good fit for you as an undergraduate? Why or why not?

I had no idea what I wanted to study until I stumbled onto cognitive science and was mesmerized by the idea that we could use science to really understand how people think, remember, and perform skills. It was a really great fit because it gave me a broad perspective on how one could study the mind and brain - whether through the lens of a cognitive psychologist, a neuroscientist, someone interested in artificial intelligence, or all of the above.

Do you think it prepared you well for your current career?

I have to say that I wasn't aware until much later in my graduate career that I had the opportunity to be taught by such impressive faculty as an undergrad. Cog Sci at UCSD gave me a first rate look at what the leaders of the field were up to and really opened my eyes to the possibilities of making a career as a cognitive scientist. But I'm not sure I realized all of this until after I had left!

Do you have any advice you'd give to current students in the cognitive sciences?
I think one of my best experiences as an undergrad was being involved in research. Seeing first hand how science is done convinced me that I wanted to pursue an academic career. But, this advice isn't limited to an academic route. If you are interested in industry or a particular career path, get some experience as early as possible. People love free, hardworking help, and these experiences will open doors you didn't even know existed.

In retrospect, your time as a graduate student seems to have paid off! What do you think you did right as a grad student, and what (if anything) would you have done differently?
I jumped into research right away and wasn't afraid to ask questions that no one was asking. Doing so helped me carve out a research area (e.g., understanding why people choke under pressure) that really combined social psychology, cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience in such a way that I had a unique grasp on skill failure. Of course, there are things I would have done differently as well. In retrospect, I think it would have been beneficial to do a postdoc. I went straight from being a graduate student one day to a faculty member the next and I think the postdoc years are a really neat way to get training in another lab, extend one's skills, and mentally prepare for life as a faculty member.

Speaking of mentally preparing for life as a faculty member, how does the reality of being a university professor differ from the way you imagined it early in your career?
I didn't realize how busy I would be! But, I also didn't realize how fulfilling it would be to train students and see them turn into my colleagues or how great it would be to have a job where I am continually learning new things.

What interests you outside of academia? And how do you balance work and life?
I am an avid athlete. I run and do yoga. Until a few years ago I played soccer and lacrosse on weekends, but I hung up my cleats when I shattered a bone in my hand and had to have surgery. It was then that I realized that sports with less direct contact might be better! I also love to travel. One of the perks of my job is that I get to travel a lot to give talks and it has been amazing getting to see parts of the world I had only read about.

Thank you, Sian!

To Nominate Someone

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