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: Wendy Ark, 2005

Wendy Ark

Wendy Ark is a Research Scientist at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA, where she is part of the Services Research Division. She is a member of the Rehearsal Services team, which provides support for business professionals to rehearse complex socio-technical situations in virtual environments

Wendy received her B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Delaware with a concentration in mathematics in May 1997. She received her M.S. and Ph.D. in Cognitive Science from the University of California, San Diego, in 2002 and 2005, respectively. She lives in San Diego with her husband, son, and dog.

An Interview with Wendy Ark

by Kim Sweeney

How did you first get involved in human-computer interaction/user interface design?

When I started at the University of Delaware as a wide-eyed, eager freshman, I wanted to keep my career options open, so I enrolled as 'Undecided.' Though that is not how I want to think about how I approach life, I do think it reflects my wide range of interests. I knew I was interested in computers (in which case, I thought computer science would be a good major), but I was also interested in people, travel, and culture (in which case, I thought political science would be a good major). After taking both computer science and political science courses my first year as an undergraduate, I realized that I had a knack for computer programming and quite enjoyed surfing the incredible waves of the internet in the 90s. I quickly declared my major as computer science with a concentration in Mathematics. After a few years of programming, solving equations, and spending a summer at my (then) dream job at NASA Ames Research Center writing code to help with the International Space Station data collection, I realized that I really missed the human-side of science that I was craving with my interest in (what I thought was) political science. I decided to look around online and find a research program that would integrate my interests and I found a professor, Dr. Martha Crosby, at the University of Hawaii who was doing some very interesting research on human-computer interaction (HCI). I emailed her and asked her for a job as a research assistant, and she immediately offered me the position. I used the National Student Exchange program at the University of Delaware to spend my senior year of school at the University of Hawaii so I could study under Dr. Crosby, who became one of the most influential people in my career. I spent a year working with Dr. Crosby on research projects, taking classes on HCI and Artificial Intelligence, and learning about graduate-level research programs. With my experience in her lab, I was able to get a job at the IBM Almaden Research Center as a software engineer.

In the course of your career, what has most surprised or excited you within your field?

Though I was really excited by the hands-on experience I was getting in the HCI field as a software engineer at the IBM research center, I realized that I lacked a lot of formal training and the theoretical foundation that a graduate program could help me obtain. I wanted to understand the 'why' about HCI – 'Why does the brain work that way?' 'Why should we design something this way?', but it is hard to ponder these questions when we are up against the day-to-day timelines in a fast-paced business environment. So, I decided to go back to school. In some ways, going back to school after being out for years is quite intimidating, but in some ways, it is a natural fit. I think this is what is most exciting – being able to change career paths for the sake of learning something new. I took a 7 year break from working at IBM to study at UCSD (5 years as a grad student and 2 years as a post-doc). And with each new learning experience that I have, I bring with me all the things that I learned before. Each of our histories that comprise our backgrounds make us so rich and we learn so much from each other. That is something that UCSD Cog Sci students can really understand. We all have such different backgrounds, but yet we are all interested in studying human cognition, so we learn how to form common ground. The interdisciplinary nature of cognitive science helps us to see things from so many perspectives and I think that helps encourage me to learn new things. And that will always keep me coming back for more – learning new things.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job and/or career?

One of the most challenging aspects of my job as a researcher in industry is to figure out how to do research on a very compressed time-scale. As a graduate student, we have days, months, and years to propose fundamental questions and develop methodologies and tools to help answer those questions. In industry, companies just don't have that long to wait. They expect answers in minutes, hours, and days. Companies have business directions and bottom lines to meet, so it can be difficult to figure out how to do good research while meeting expectations for third-quarter goals. I should probably stress here that this isn't a comparison between industry and academia, it is more about the difference between graduate student-level research and post-graduate research. After graduate school, I had to learn how to kick-it-up a notch.

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

This is difficult. I find myself working very long hours and work can be very stressful. Luckily, working at IBM means that I can work from home and I have very flexible hours. This gives me a lot more time to spend with my family, but that also means that I work at all hours of the night and the wee hours of the morning. I haven't got this quite figured out yet, but I talk to mentors on a regular basis. I get lots of great advice from them about how they cope with work and family life. I recommend that everyone get as many mentors, as diverse as possible, to solicit advice about these types of things.

If you could choose another profession to be in, what would it be?

Wow, if I had to choose another profession, that would be tough. I have a lot of interests. Medical doctor, restaurateur, soccer coach, race car driver, animal rescuer all come to mind. There's no theme here. But, I think the serious answer would be a career in entertainment: writer, director, and then producer. We all have such interesting stories to tell about ourselves and the experiences that we have. I often jot down ideas for screenplays or short stories that I would love to finish someday. Who knows? Maybe someday I will. I have taken a couple classes and even wrote and directed a short skit for a local television station. For now, I think I will just keep it as my (not-so-secret-anymore) hobby.

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