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.
Fred Dick received his PhD from the Department of Cognitive Science at University of California-San Diego in 2003, where his research was concentrated on cross-linguistic studies of aphasia, language development, and the audiomotor bases of language skill. Following a research fellowship at the University of Chicago’s Brain Research Imaging Centre, he became a faculty member in the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development in the Department of Psychology at Birkbeck College in the University of London in 2004. From 2006-7 he was acting director and since 2007 has been associate director of the Birkbeck-UCL Centre for NeuroImaging (BUCNI).
Can you tell us about your current research program?
Remarkably, my research program now is not so dissimilar from the one I was pursuing at UCSD. The basic question is how our (relatively) standard-issue primate brain shapes itself over development and learning to accomplish remarkable and species specific skills like language. So part of my research focuses on comparing different language skills (at different ages) to as-analogous-as-possible non-linguistic skills in order to understand how a big primate brain might decompose the problem of learning spoken language. A big part of that is looking at the process and product of learning itself, both in the language domain and also in other complex audiomotor skills, like music production and perception.
I do a lot of fMRI and structural MRI, both with kids and adults. However, I am a real fan of different behavioral methods - and am trying to learn some new ones right now. I'm lucky enough to kibbutz on the lab meeting of amazing auditory perception group at the UCL Ear Institute - the amount of knowledge you can get about basic auditory function from clever behavioral studies constantly staggers me.
Your own research notwithstanding, what do you think is the most exciting research area in cognitive science today?
One that I find really exciting is the increasing use of computational models of vision in interpreting neuroimaging data both in humans and other animals. In and of itself it is interesting (for instance, work by Jack Gallant and Niko Kriegeskorte), as well as a way forward in understanding some potential coding schemes in cortex. I am also pretty excited about the work that some UCSD-related folks like Elizabeth Torres are doing on using models of motor planning to understand not only neural representations and change, but also characterize developmental change and clinical disorders.
Let's go back to your experience at UCSD. What do you think you did right, and what would you do differently if you had a chance?
Always easier to start out with what I'd do differently. It's rather boring, but I should have made myself learn more in-depth computational and neuroscience skills my first years in grad school. It gets harder later on, I can assure you.
The most clever thing I did during grad school was to collaborate with a bunch of remarkable people within the department and also across the campus - not just faculty members but fellow grad students and undergrads. The scientific and personal relationships I formed there are still the basis of much of my research life today.
Who was your favorite professor back here at UCSD, and why?
Despite it being a single question, I'll give two answers.
First answer: it's impossible to have a favorite professor in Cog Sci at UCSD. Until I left, I didn't quite realize what an outsize influence the faculty members have had on the development and direction of multiple disciplines. What I did know was that they were - to a person - a wonderfully supportive and exciting set of individuals to be around.
Second answer: my advisor Liz Bates. As a scientist, mentor, and friend, she is without equal.
You've moved to the UK to continue your academic career, instead of going to an American university. Do you see large differences between the academic cultures of the two countries?
They are relatively similar, more so than I might have guessed. There has been such an influx of international academics into Britain over the last ten or so years that it feels quite like the states in many ways. (For some time, we had only one faculty member in our department who was English!). Of course, there are some things that differ quite a lot - for instance, UK undergrad exams happen once a year, and are almost all handwritten essays. (As you can imagine, I have been agitating for more exams - with at least some gradable by scantron!) And PhDs are *very* different - there are essentially no courses, so most students spend their entire doctoral career working on a series of projects in a single lab.
What are the costs and benefits of working away from the States, as you see them?
I've been amazingly lucky with my move to Birkbeck, so the costs have been few if any. One of the benefits has been working in a country where there is broad support for the basic tenets of science across the political spectrum.
What do you do in your spare time, when you're not being a cognitive scientist?
One of the fantastic things about working in central London is that you are smack in the middle of one of the world's greatest artistic communities. So I try to make it a point to go see as much theatre and music as I can. It almost makes up for being able to run on La Jolla Shores beach every day.
How do you balance work and the rest of your life?
Do you have any advice for current cognitive science grad students?
Turn off the internet, ignore your email, and design a great experiment. And with that in mind...
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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.