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.
Nicole Wicha has always been drawn to language, always finding interest in how it is used and what we do with it. This interest was furthered with a double-major in Spanish as well as Psychology while an undergraduate at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which then lead her to the UCSD Cognitive Science department. Her time at UCSD, studying under Marta Kutas and Liz Bates, has proved to guide her career not only as a researcher but also as an academic and mentor.
Nicole is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, and she also directs the Event Related Potentials lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Her research centers around the cognitive and neural basis of language. Currently a primary focus in her lab is in understanding the unique processing capabilities of the bilingual brain. Some of the questions include how the bilingual brain predicts and processes two languages simultaneously, such as when reading a sentence that contains language switches, the implicit effects that one language can have on the other during processing or conversely how bilinguals manage to process one language without interference from the other.
How did you decide that you wanted to study cognitive science?
I sort of had been worked my way towards it. I studied psychology as an undergraduate, and was very interested in bio-psychology, studying brain and behavior. I managed to combine my interest in language and psychology at the Sorbonne where I almost got a masters degree in psycholinguistics... I was accepted to UCSD and decided to have fun my last 2 months in Paris. While working in Paris, I was still left with wanting to know more about the brain and information processing. I started looking around at programs, and really it was the UCSD Cognitive Science program that attracted me to CogSci. I wasn't really aware that cognitive science was a discipline in and of itself until I discovered UCSD Cognitive Science. I applied and ended up there and really enjoyed it.
More specifically, how did your research come to focus on language processing?
Like most of us, there's a joke that we end up studying ourselves. I knew a postdoc that was in a genetics lab and was studying mice that ended up being bald, and he's totally bald, so it was kind of a running joke. I always had an interest in language. It was sort of another direction that I thought I might go. I didn't really want to study linguistics directly, or stay within foreign languages or something like that, but I knew that it was something that I loved. I loved learning languages, and I had a lot intuitions about language and a lot of phenomena within language, such as what we do with language, how we interpret language, and how you can use language to have double meanings. All those kind of things always interested me. So I actually had a double major in Spanish when I was an undergraduate, and I wasn't quite sure how that would ever be useful with what I was doing. Slowly, I just ended up merging the two things -- my interest in the mind and the brain, and my interest in language and how language is used and learned. It just kind of came together naturally, but there was never a point that I thought, "Okay, this is what I want to do."
How did your experience at the UCSD Cognitive Science program shape the approach you take to research?
That's an interesting question, because for most of us, our experience in graduate school is our experience, right? I think that UCSD CogSci was fundamental in shaping the way I approach everything I do in my research career, even in my teaching and the way I interact with colleagues. Everything I do in my career started with UCSD. I was there for long enough that it had a long time to have an impact on me. So that's a tough question because I don't think I can separate myself from what I learned at UCSD. It was essentially my formative self. But more specifically, I think that CogSci has given me a very broad and open mind about how to approach things. In being multi-disciplinary, I'm always amazed at how there's still so many people and so many fields that are single-minded in what they're willing to consider relevant to their work. And I think Cognitive Science really makes you think about things from all angles, be willing to accept data from any other discipline that might be relevant to what you do, and think about things more broadly. I think that has really driven the way I do research.
Are there any specific experiences you remember fondly from your time at UCSD?
There's something general that I've learned from being away from UCSD CogSci that I really have learned to appreciate about CogSci. I appreciated it even then, but it's so much more obvious to me now. The community in CogSci is so incredibly rich and so connected that, at least when I was there, the students and the faculty interact so much, the graduate students with each other, and the graduate students with the faculty. Then there's the interconnectivity of CogSci with the rest of the neuroscience community, linguistics community, and psychology. It was just such a rich environment, and it really made you feel part of the entire network. I've realized that is something very unique, now that I'm away from it. When I came to where I am now, at UTSA, I expected the same type of interconnectivity as at UCSD, and it just doesn't happen the same way. I've realized, after talking to other people at other campuses, that being able to experience that environment is so unique. It's very rare, and something that I now feel very fortunate to have been part of.
That is a very nice part of being at UCSD!
One of the neatest things for me was that I was a graduate student representative in my second year. We got to sit in on almost every single faculty meeting. At the time, I thought, "Well, that's pretty cool," but I just thought that what's always done. But I've come to realize that nobody does that. That is, most faculty meetings do not allow graduate students in them. Just being able to sit in on those meetings and see how the faculty interacted with each other, and just listen to the discussions they had about the realities of academia, the reality of being at a university, and dealing with the administration and all these other things. That was such an enriching experience that when I came here and actually asked the faculty, "Where are the graduate students?" they laughed at me -- "Graduate students can't sit in on these meetings!" That's a specific experience I had at UCSD CogSci that I think was especially enriching.
Did that experience temper your enthusiasm to follow an academic career? Did it help prepare you for some of the realities that you encounter now?
It made me realize that there are always issues. There are always things that you're unprepared for when you start off in academia. It didn't change my desire to go into academia -- it kind of encouraged it -- but it made me realize something. The faculty, the people that have graduate students, you kind of revere them and think that they are immune to everything, but they're just human. They argue amongst themselves, and they have issues, and they have opinions, and their opinions don't always agree, and people get offended. That aspect, the human side of it, was really nice to see. When I'm sitting in my faculty meetings now, it makes me realize that it's not just unique to this group of people here. They're not just a bunch of wacky people. It's just something that happens. It's just human nature and it happens everywhere. Especially as a junior faculty member, you don't know what to expect.
What is your favorite part of being a professor?
My favorite part of being at the university is mentoring people in my lab. Doing research with young people that are excited and want to learn, and teaching them one-on-one. That's the most fun to me, are those one-on-one interactions. I get the most out of the students that have successfully completed a thesis in my lab, or published a paper. That really means the most to me above everything else.
Did the experiences you had being mentored at UCSD guide the way you have mentored your own students?
I was lucky enough to have two advisors at UCSD that were very different kinds of advisors. Liz Bates and Marta Kutas. They were both very good mentors and advisors. They provided very different styles of mentoring and I think I took a little bit of both of those in how I work with my students. I wish I could be as good as either of them, but I took what I could. Most importantly, they were both such good mentors both at the academic level and caring about us as individuals. That's really what has shaped me in caring about my students.
What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being a professor?
You know, especially as a junior faculty member, the most challenging thing is to try to do everything you're expected to do right off the bat without any training. We're trained as graduate students to do research, and a little bit to teach. Most people don't really get a full experience of developing a new course and of dealing with 200 undergraduates. On the research side you pretty much just get to do the research, but there's so many other things that you have no idea about until you get there. Things like building a lab, dealing with administrative duties. When I arrived at UTSA I was expected to instantly know how to balance a quarter of a million dollar budget, manage employees, mentor students, figure out the exact electro-magnetic properties of my recording chamber, develop a new course, serve on academic committees and somehow also do my research. I was basically supposed to be an engineer, accountant, politician, mentor, manager, instructor and researcher all at once. Fortunately, through my experience at Cog Sci I knew I could at least do research, and do fairly well at teaching and mentoring. The rest I had to learn on the fly. In the university system, I think all universities have a lot of red tape, paper work, and other things you're supposed to do, but you don't realize how much there is until you get at it. Every day there's something, and it's just constant. There never seems to be enough time in the day to do everything and do it right. That's frustrating. Sometimes I wish I could go back to being a graduate student so I could just do research and have nothing else to worry about.
Given those demands on your time, how do you try to maintain a balance between the work demands and the rest of your life?
Seriously, it is very hard. I was actually just dealing with that today, because I have a 9-month-old and a 3-and-a-half-year-old. They take up a lot of my time and energy. Mental, physical, emotional, everything. It is very challenging to try to have a life outside of academia, and then try to do everything well. So I'm still trying to figure out how to maintain that balance. Maybe ask me in another 3 or 5 years. You have to figure out what's really important at the moment. To me you just have to go day by day, and try to do the best you can do at what you're doing at the moment. There are unfortunately some things that end up falling by the wayside.
Finally, do you have any advice for current UCSD cognitive science students that may be considering an academic career?
In terms of advice for an academic career, there's one thing that I think I would have done differently. For personal reasons I ended up staying and doing a postdoc in CogSci at UCSD. Although I didn't ever want to leave UCSD, I think in retrospect it would have helped me a lot to go somewhere else. I think that I would advise people that are considering staying locally, because it's the easy way to go or because you don't want to leave San Diego, that it really is worthwhile to go somewhere else and experience a different environment and take a different angle on your research. The other thing I would definitely advise is to start practicing the things that you will have to do in academia, like writing papers and applying for grants, because those are going to be two of the most critical things. You're going to have to do them right off the bat the moment you get into an academic position, and it can be really hard because there's not usually someone there to guide you. As a graduate student, you have so much mentorship in applying for something like an NRSA, or writing a paper and publishing it in a major journal. It's such a process and such a learning experience that you want to do it before you have to do it for a living. So I would definitely advise people to do that as graduate students.
The other thing I would say to any graduate student in CogSci is to make the most of your time there. It's a wonderful place to be, it's a unique place. It's going to be hard to match that environment when you get out to the rest of the world. Make the most of it, take as much as you can, and learn as much as you can from the people around you, because it's all about the people that are around you. It's all about the incredible community of people that are so interconnected and willing to talk to each other. They're all so smart and doing such cool things. You can take that for granted so easily. There's an amazing lecture practically every day somewhere on campus. When you get away from that, you suddenly realize how much you had when you were there. I hope that most of the current graduate students realize this and make the most of it.
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.