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: Kara Federmeier, 2000

Kara Federmeier

Education was an important facet of Kara Federmeier's life from an early age, as her parents were both high school teachers... and Kara quickly discovered that she loved learning. She was valedictorian of her high school graduating class and received the award of highest distinction from the School of Life Sciences at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign for her undergraduate honors thesis and academic record. This research experience, primarily in Bill Greenough's lab on the neural bases of motor learning and with Marie Banich on hemispheric differences in spatial processing, solidified her desire to do research at the interface of brain and cognition. At the same time, her experience with a family member who had aphasia impressed upon her the essential nature of language abilities for daily life and how interesting language is as a uniquely human cognitive ability. Kara therefore looked for an interdisciplinary graduate program that would train her to use neuroscience methods to study cognition, especially language.

The UCSD Cognitive Science department, with the Center for Research in Language (CRL) and the Kutas Lab, turned out to be a great fit for Kara to do her graduate studies. She worked with Marta Kutas and also with Liz Bates, earning her Ph.D. in January of 2000 with her dissertation on "Sense and structure: Electrophysiological investigations of semantic memory organization and use." As a graduate student Kara was supported by a Howard Hughes Predoctoral Fellowship in Biological Sciences, a prestigious award given nationwide to fewer than 70 students that year, and received awards from other institutions such as the Philanthropic Educational Organization and the McDonnell-Pew Center for Cognitive Neuroscience.

While Kara's husband finished his thesis at Scripps, she stayed on as a CRL post-doc in the Kutas Lab, extending her research in new directions to look at the effects of aging on cognitive processing. In 2002 she headed back to Illinois as an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department where she started up the Cognition and Brain Lab. She continues to have a rich set of research interests and is affiliated with the interdisciplinary institute, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, which houses her lab. Among her professional achievements, Kara received the Award for Distinguished Early Career Contributions to Psychophysiology in 2006 from the Society for Psychophysiology, and this past year was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure. In the midst of this flourishing career, Kara has also built a family, raising an eight-year-old son and a one-and-a-half-year-old daughter with her husband. When she finds time, she likes reading, hiking and learning new things of all kinds, but, as you could imagine, between family and work it's hard for her to make time for much else!

An Interview with Kara Federmeier

by Jenny Collins

What do you study in the Cognition and Brain Lab ?

We study the neural bases of language comprehension, with a focus on word and sentence-level meaning, as well as verbal memory. We are particularly interested in how the two hemispheres comprehend language, both individually and interactively, and in how verbal processing changes over the course of normal aging.

That is a wide array of topics! How did you choose all of these aspects of cognition? Did you know this was what you wanted to work on when you started your research?

Across my undergrad and graduate school experiences, I was exposed to a lot of topics and methods, and within Marta's lab I had the opportunity to work on a number of different kinds of projects. My dissertation was focused on how people glean meaning from a sentence and, in particular, on how the system uses sentence context information to make predictions (guesses) about likely upcoming information. I studied these questions about comprehension using words and pictures, and also considering hemispheric differences. After I finished graduate school I continued as a post-doc in Marta's lab, and it was then that I became interested in questions about aging. Marta's approach is definitely to take a broad perspective on cognitive issues, and this has influenced me a lot. More generally, though, I think that studying comprehension and meaning forces one's research program to be broad. When studying language, it becomes clear that we need to understand not just how words are processed but how those words are put together in sentences and how the sentences are used in daily life. Of course, understanding words involves accessing information from memory, so you also need to understand the nature of the conceptual memory system. In the end, then, the topics that my students work on all eventually come together naturally.

What do you feel is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I honestly love almost every aspect of my job. I like lecturing, writing, reading, thinking, experimenting. The part I enjoy most is playing with ideas: figuring out what data mean, how to design an experiment to get at a question, how to fit new information in with old. The part that is most inspiring is the moment in which you first learn something -- see a piece of data -- that no one else has ever seen before (wow!). But the most rewarding part is mentoring graduate students and postdocs, and thereby feeling part of an intellectual lineage much bigger than you. I was trained by some incredibly smart, creative, and themselves well-trained people, and feel very lucky to have had that legacy passed down to me. I hope to do the same for my students, and hope that they, in turn, will be good mentors to their students.

How did you know you wanted to be a professor?

My parents were both high school teachers, so I've always had an education-oriented background. I guess being a professor seemed to me to be the pinnacle of working in education. I'm rabidly curious, and I love the intellectual atmosphere of a university and the personal freedom to do the work that interests me most. In contrast to working for someone else where there would be set restrictions and external goals, I like the idea that as a professor I can follow the questions where they lead me and move in different directions over time. Although the hours are long and there can be a lot of pressure, most of the professors I have known are passionate people who love what they do, and I saw myself in them.

How do you think students can feel confident in the career decisions we make?

Cognitive science is a very rich, diverse field, which is obviously an advantage but can also create stress because there are so many possible paths and places to go. I think Marta gives good advice about these issues: she tells students to do the things that they enjoy, the things that make sense to them and engage them. To do this, you need to try out different things, and being a student is the perfect time for that. In the end, then, you'll be able to look at what you've done and what aspects of that you've liked most and follow the path that those things take you on. Your career will tend to fall into place when you can identify the things you find meaningful and are good at, and when you can balance that with the other things in life that are important to you. And you should never feel stuck: if you like what you are doing, great, but if not, try something else! I try to have faith that people can and do end up in places where they can be happy. I feel that it's such a blessing to be able to do something that I enjoy, and am hopeful that others can do this as well.

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

I think constant interaction with people studying a diverse set of topics and using a variety of methods keeps you from becoming too complacent, too settled into the jargon and assumptions of an individual discipline or approach. You learn to examine topics from multiple angles, to assume that you do not know enough (and never will!), to be able to deal with -- even relish -- questions that seem to come from "left field", and to honestly assess the worth of your work from a larger perspective. While the breadth can be overwhelming, it is also an incredible resource ... there are lots of experts, lots of articles, lots of books, lots of methods. There is no reason to be bored and every reason to try something new!

Has the multidisciplinary aspect of the Cognitive Science Department stayed with you to influence your work?

Yes, the Beckman Institute that I am part of now is interdisciplinary, though it has a slightly different feel than when I was at UCSD because it's not a department like Cog Sci. My lab is at the Beckman Institute, and it hosts labs from a variety of departments and areas, with communal spaces for gathering and discussions, though the individual faculty members are based in departments organized along more traditional lines. It is appealing to be in this institute and was an important part of the reason I wanted to come to the University of Illinois. I think you have to consciously try to stay interdisciplinary; it's easy to fall into the research strategy of pursuing one question and looking at smaller and smaller aspects rather than trying to fit it into the big picture. My experience in CogSci reminds me of the value of challenging yourself to continually learn new things and look at a larger perspective.

What is the most challenging aspect of a professor?

The need to be a jack of all trades (writer, teacher, manager, committee member, computer programmer, graphic artist, secretary, etc., etc.) and to constantly switch roles and switch topics. And, at a larger level, the fact that there is no real down-time. There are always things on the to-do list, always people who need things from you, and no time that you really feel is completely yours or completely free from work demands.

With all of these challenges what personal qualities or abilities are particularly important to being successful?

You really do have to be good at a lot of things, and problems with any one of them can sometimes be a career-killer. You can't, for example, do great research but never write it up. But I think the most important thing by far, though it sounds like a cliché, is passion. No one is going to hover over you and tell you what to do and how to do it and how fast to do it -- which is a real perk for me. But that means that all the energy has to come from within, as does the reward. You're not going to get famous or rich doing this ... so you have to really love it!

How do you maintain a balance between your work and the rest of your life?

Balance is a strong word! But, despite the fact that I think academia is a particularly all-consuming career, I strongly believe you have to be a person first. I said I thought passion was a key factor in success, and maintaining that passion means you have to follow your dreams and be who you are and take care of yourself and the people you love. Families, friends, home-related duties, hobbies, exercise -- those kind of things take time, but, at least for me, also provide the basis for the energy I need to do good work. I work very hard not to let work encroach on my family life too much (though it does encroach, of course!); it is important to me to spend focused time with my family (husband, son, and daughter). And I am getting a little better at making time for myself. But maintaining some kind of balance does mean that I have to multitask -- a LOT! There really aren't enough hours in the day (and night) otherwise.

Was it difficult to plan your family while you were (and still are) building your career?

I knew that I wanted to have children and wouldn't have wanted to give that up for my career. I'm often asked when the best time is to have children and I don't think there is any "right time" ... or any wrong time. When it is right for your family and your life, you should go for it, and trust that you'll be able to fit your career around it. I had my son (now eight) at the beginning of my post-doc; I was pregnant when I defended my dissertation. I then had my daughter, who is a year-and-a-half old now, at my tenure transition, when many of my papers were written and a lot of the work that would be included in my promotion dossier was done. In between, I focused on my career (and caught up on my sleep!).

The hard part about having kids as a professor is that academia and parenthood are both all-consuming activities. But, in many ways, it turns out to be a practical combination because academia allows me the freedom to accommodate all the surprises that come with kids. Just as with having the flexibility to determine my research projects, I have the flexibility to work out my schedule for myself. I can take work home when I need to and be at home when the kids are sick, for example. Academia really can be a kid-friendly career.

Do you have any particular hints for getting it all done?

The hardest part is dealing with the transition of getting busier (which seems to happen at each career milestone). I was used to having large chunks of time to do my work but as you build a lab, have children, have students to supervise, you only have short amounts of time. You must be effective with these small bits of time! It's easy to be bounced around by the seemingly urgent things. But you have to force yourself to make time for the work that really matters and that you'll be judged on, even though these are the things that generally don't have imminent deadlines. If you can force yourself to do the work that you really need to get done whenever you can and you've set things up right, the little pieces gradually become big pieces and you can get everything done. This applies, too, for things like a dissertation - you have to take it one study at a time and in the end it will all add up.

Is there any other advice you would like to share for current UCSD students?

Just to relax and enjoy where you are. It's the little moments that make up life, so you have to enjoy them as they come. I think it is easy to forget what a privilege it is to be able to devote time and resources just to learning things. And in San Diego that learning can take place in an incredibly rich intellectual environment and an incredibly beautiful natural environment.

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.