Meet Our Majors

Meet some of our cognitive science majors.

Isabel Geddes ’20

Hometown: New York City
Major: cognitive science; minor: politics

What was your motivation to major in cognitive science?

I was won over after taking Cognitive Science 101 during my first semester at Oxy. It was a totally unique area to me—I hadn’t studied anything like it in high school and I was drawn to both the theoretical and practical opportunities provided by the department, including a breadth of classes and many options for research.

Can you describe your working relationships with cognitive science professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

Introduction to Linguistics” with Professor Mariska Bolyanatz and “Cognitive Neuroscience” with Professor Aleksandra Sherman come to mind. These courses stand out to me because both of these professors were genuinely passionate about their practice and were extremely accessible outside of the classroom. I also appreciated that they encouraged our curiosities. We regularly explored tangents during our discussions, which made class that much more engaging.

Have you taken part in any cognitive science-related research opportunities at Oxy or elsewhere?

I’ve been involved with research in cognitive science and psychology at Oxy since my first year. I worked on several multi-sensory projects with Professor Carmel Levitan and conducted research in the rat lab with Professor Nancy Dess. I’ve also worked with Professor Andrew Shtulman on a developmental psychology study that helped to inform my senior comps, which is a literature review about theories of intuition, judgment and decision-making.

What do you find most compelling about studying cognitive science?

The ability to study the human brain and behavior through the lenses of psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, computer science, philosophy, artificial intelligence and more is what I find most compelling about cognitive science. I don’t know of many other majors that are this interdisciplinary or that can cater to so many diverse interests.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in cognitive science?

Don’t be shy with professors and upperclassmen! There are so many subfields and disciplines within cognitive science and we’d love to talk about them.

 


 

Layal Bata ’21

Hometown: Amman, Jordan/Orinda, CA
Majors: cognitive science, computer science

What was your motivation to major in cognitive science?

I wanted a truly interdisciplinary field that doesn’t draw lines between science, social science and the humanities, but rather merges each approach thoughtfully to create a more robust basis for analysis. Looking at the same questions from multiple perspectives creates a much richer, more interesting answer to the questions proposed by cognitive science. 

Can you describe your working relationships with cognitive science professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

From the moment I took COGS 101 with Professors Carmel Levitan and Kathryn Leonard, it was extremely clear that this department thinks critically about the material being presented, and encourages critique. “Computational Approaches to Cognition” with Professor Alan Knoerr has also been a real pleasure!

Have you taken part in any cognitive science-related research opportunities at Oxy?

I’ve been working in Oxy’s Multisensory Lab under Professor Levitan for a year, and it’s been an amazing experience. The most recent study I worked on was a multilab study on the causes of the Uncanny Valley effect, specifically with robots.

What do you find most compelling about studying cognitive science?

I love that cognitive science knows that we don’t truly know anything with 100% certainty. Cognitive science is not about hardline answers to large questions—everything is subject to adjustment or major changes, and the field is aware of how much our viewpoints on every question can shift based on access to knowledge, theories and evidence at the time. I find this malleability and diving into the unknown really exciting!

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in cognitive science?

Cognitive science is interdisciplinary in nature, and although all the material is connected and what you learn in one place carries over to another, you get the opportunity to develop different ways of approaching similar questions. Be open to stepping out of your comfort zone!

 


 

Cassia Harrison ’20

Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Majors: cognitive science, economics

What was your motivation to major in cognitive science?

I decided to major in cognitive science because of the freedom the major allows. There are so many electives in a variety of fields and I had the option to take math classes and philosophy classes alongside intensive neuroscience labs. Some of the most amazing classes I’ve taken include cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. I love learning not only the neural mechanisms but the social aspects of things like consciousness, perception, and memory and how they affect everyday behavior.

Can you describe your working relationships with cognitive science professors?

I have a really amazing relationship with my cognitive science professors. When I came to college I wanted to experience a close mentorship relationship and I have found that within my cognitive science classes. I am currently conducting research with Professor Aleksandra Sherman in the Multisensory Lab, continuing work on a project I started my junior year. Conducting research in the department has given me the opportunity to work really closely with professors as well as other students.

Have you taken part in any cognitive science-related research opportunities at Oxy?

I was lucky enough to participate in research through the Undergraduate Research Center with Professor Sherman as my advisor and mentor. I currently TA “Empirical Methods,” which both Professor Sherman and Professor Carmel Levitan teach. I go to Professor Levitan’s lab section and help students as they work through data analysis and research papers. It has been really rewarding to work with my peers—helping them through the same projects and subjects that I remember learning for the first time—and being able to provide some clarity and guidance.

 


 

Alexia Leggin ’22

Hometown: Chicago, IL
Major: cognitive science; minor: Spanish. Pre-med track.

What was your motivation to major in cognitive science?

My motivation to study cognitive science was rooted in my passion for neuroscience and my desire to understand the mechanics of the brain. I came to Oxy expecting cognitive science to be just like neuroscience, yet I found it was actually a much better fit for me. The qualitative approach to the mechanics of the brain intertwined with the strict mechanics of neuroscience presented a unique platform for me. Cognitive science challenges my writing competency as well as my quantitative approach to science, and I feel that this molds me into the perfect premed candidate.

Can you describe your working relationships with cognitive science professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

I have a really special relationship with Professor Carmel Levitan, particularly because I knew from my first day of “Intro to Cognitive Science” that she was someone I would always consider a role model. She set the precedent of what exactly it means to embody a powerful woman in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). I am currently taking “Empirical Methods,” and the class has made me feel that same sense of empowerment. No doubt the subject matter is tough, but the “awe” factor makes the hard work worthwhile. When I realized that I wanted to declare cognitive science as my major, I pursued guided research with Professor Levitan. As we are just beginning that journey, I am very interested in seeing what else cognitive science has to offer.

Have you taken part in any cognitive science-related research opportunities at Oxy?

I am currently conducting research with Professor Levitan, and it is in the beginning stages. We have just started to run a study that focuses on object perception. I am also in the process of developing an independent research proposal that we construct as a co-requirement of the research methods class.

What do you find most compelling about studying cognitive science?

I find cognitive science to be most intriguing in its intersectionality. I place a significant emphasis on that quality, because it allows you to explore so many other areas that you’d love to develop as a multifaceted being. I love to write, I have recently discovered an interest in philosophy, and I love neuroscience—cognitive science allows me to explore all of these areas. I have been able to grow in various areas simultaneously, and they all work toward the same goal.

What are your plans or ambitions post-Oxy? How has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

My plans are to pursue a career in medicine, specifically a neuroscience specialty (ideally in surgery). I see cognitive science as the perfect pathway to constructing my skills as a strong medical school candidate, as well as a neuroscience enthusiast. Cognitive science has allowed me to develop skills for articulating the interconnectedness of the science of the brain and its perception in a more multifaceted way. I am able to illustrate core concepts, philosophize those concepts and express them in my own words. I feel that a strictly quantitative science major would not have allowed me to develop these critical skills to the same extent.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in cognitive science?

There are so many components to cognitive science—you will inevitably stumble on a topic you may have never envisioned yourself engaging in and falling in love with. On the other hand, if you come across a topic that’s not satisfying your curiosities as much, then find something that grounds you in that topic and leverage it to perform well. Cognitive science is optimally enjoyable when you have an open mind.

 


 

Michael Caballero ’20

Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Majors: cognitive science, philosophy; minor: linguistics

What was your motivation to major in cognitive science?

I took “Intro to Cognitive Science” my freshman year and although it was a difficult class, I loved the wide variety of information drawn from different fields about the brain and mind. The range of perspectives available to approach the brain allows for me to maintain my interest in the topics related to cognitive science.

Can you describe your working relationships with cognitive science professors? Are there any standout classes you’ve taken?

With my focus on the more philosophical issues that arise in cognitive science, I have taken many classes with Professors Dylan Sabo and Saul Traiger. Both are faculty in both the cognitive science and philosophy departments. Professor Sabo’s focus is on the problems that arise when thinking about the mind and/or language. Once I realized that his focus and my interests were very aligned I asked him to be my advisor in both departments. I have consistently taken at least one of Sabo’s courses every semester since my sophomore year. He is easily one of the most organized professors I’ve ever had. He creates his lesson plans with a logical flow that makes the topics we discuss easier to understand and he really makes sure the class understands what is going on before he moves on to the next topic. One of Professor Sabo’s most interesting classes for me was “Animal Cognition,” a 200-level class that is a great introduction to his cognitive science courses.

Can you describe your senior comps project?

My senior comps project is concerned with thought and language. There are two extremes on a spectrum of theories that attempt to draw out this relationship: first, what are known as communicative views, which posit that language is an external symbol manipulation system whose sole purpose is to communicate our internal thoughts. Second, there are extra-communicative views, which posit that language is constitutively involved in some of our thought processes, such that certain thoughts are made possible by our linguistic capacities. I argue in favor of the second view of language and thought, although exactly which thought processes language is involved in is a difficult question to answer, and a lot of the foundational research on this topic is subject to philosophical problems of interpretation. So I am drawing out which studies provide actual generalizable results and which present issues of interpretation, and how we should conduct research in this field moving forward.

What do you find most compelling about studying cognitive science?

When you learn about how the mind works, in a sense you’r learning how everything works—from yourself to others and the entire world. I find that it has made me more understanding; for example, when I find something weird or strange I now know that my intuition is not always correct, and many times the reason we find things strange or even scary is our lack of experience with that thing. I have learned that the wider your range of experiences, the more ways you have to relate your past experiences to new ones, which just makes life easier. I can see this kind of open-mindedness throughout both the cognitive science and philosophy departments—in both faculty and students—which is a huge part of why I love the departments.

What are your plans or ambitions post-Oxy? How has the liberal arts approach helped to shape these ambitions?

As much as I love my majors and the subjects I’m learning, being at Oxy has helped me realize that ultimately, I do not want to work in an office setting. I currently have my EMT certification and am a Los Angeles City Lifeguard, and I want to get involved in emergency medical services. After graduation I plan on joining the U.S. Coast Guard, which will allow me to get a number of certifications that would otherwise be very costly, and possibly even help me pay my student loans. My plans differ drastically from most of my peers, but I feel this is where I would be happiest, and I believe that the liberal arts approach has helped to show me what actually matters (my happiness) rather than simply following a path that has been laid out for me.

Do you have any advice for a student considering a major in cognitive science?

When taking Cog Sci 101, you might be overwhelmed by the number of topics and the speed at which they are covered. Don’t let this discourage you, because once you’ve passed that class you can take more focused classes. I myself have mostly taken classes about the philosophical and linguistic sides of cognitive science and fewer about the neuroscience aspect. So when taking Cog Sci 101, identify your favorite topics and try and take classes focusing on those.

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