Specialization Spotlight: Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience
What’s your year in school, specialization, and position?
Christina Ruiz-Mendoza: I’m a fourth-year majoring in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, and I am the Marketing chair.
Rohini Sen: I‘m a fourth-year and I’m the co-president of CSSA, and my specialization is cognitive and behavioral neuroscience.
Jess Orford: I’m a third-year student. My position is fundraising chair at CSSA, and my specialization is cognitive and behavioral neuroscience.
Harpreet Nijjer: I am a third-year majoring in cognitive and behavioral neuroscience. I am the co-media chair.
What’s a fun fact about you?
CRM: In my free time, I love to hang out with my dog. I have a fat, medium-sized dog who looks like a lab puppy, but he’s actually five years old. His name is Joey after the car wash Soapy Joe’s because they found him there. He’s a rescue dog!
RS: A fun fact about me is that I can speak 4 languages.
JO: I’ve lived in 3 different countries and I’m also left-handed.
HN: I’m actually a published author/writer.
What got you into Cognitive Science and your specialization?
CRM: I came in as a political science major and realized that it wasn’t for me, so I was looking into psychology and neuroscience. Neuroscience is a little too much biology for me and psych is too theoretical, so I was like, ‘Well, what do I choose?’ Then I found cognitive science, and I found that it’s basically a combination of both. It’s a good middle ground that brings a lot of machine learning and even animal research with anthropology. It’s a nice interdisciplinary major.
RS: I actually came in as a biology major but then I took PSYCH 1 (Psychology) with Professor Walker, and I really enjoyed that class. I also had a chance to interact with the professor outside of class and talk a little bit about research in psychology and even cognitive psychology. And that’s when I realized that I wanted to switch my major to cognitive science because I was very interested in learning more about how we think and the science behind cognition.
JO: I originally came in undeclared, thinking I was going to do something biology-related. Then I realized I wanted something a little broader, a little more interesting than classic biology. My roommate from freshman year was a cognitive science major so I did a little digging into the specialization. I came across CBN and I’ve always had an interest in neuroscience and psychology and I realized that this is a perfect combination between those two aspects. I tried it out and I absolutely love it.
HN: When I was a first-year, one of my friends was a cognitive science major. I talked to her about it and kind of realized that it was exactly what I wanted to do. I was already interested in neuroscience coming in, but I knew that I didn’t want to take the pre-med route and I didn’t want to be a biology major. Cognitive science is that cool middle ground for me.
What’s the most important thing you have learned in this field?
CRM: The most important thing I’ve learned is that although the human brain is incredibly complex, we can find similarities in brain structure and function with other species, like primates, cetaceans, and rodents. I learned that we can learn more about the neuroanstomy and behavior of humans through the study of animals.
RS: I think everything that I’ve learned in this field so far is important in its own way. And it’s with all of the information that you learn about the brain, you realize that a lot of it is interconnected. I can’t specifically point out one big thing that I think is important; I just think everything has been important.
JO: I think the most important thing that I’ve learned is that the brain is a lot more complicated than you think. There’s no such thing as simply understanding the brain; it’s not something that you can really do within a lifetime. It’s more understanding a certain aspect of the brain—something specific that you have a goal towards and then using that to make bigger picture connections.
HN: There are so many options and ways to get involved that you can take advantage of. I’m really glad that I joined the cognitive science student association as a board member. But even as a member, it’s great because you meet like-minded people who are taking part in many different activities on campus. This builds a network of people, which is extremely important in today’s world.
What COGS classes did you find the most useful?
CRM: Personally, COGS 17 (Neurobiology of Cognition) was a good overarching umbrella class of all the neuroscience that you’re gonna need to know. To me, it was a really fun class with just as much biology that I’d like, and it wasn’t too in-depth or too broad either. That class was really an eye-opener to what CBN is.
RS: I think COGS 17 (Neurobiology of Cognition) was super, super helpful. It talks about a lot of the fundamentals of neuroscience. It talks about neuroanatomy — just like how the brain functions on a very fundamental level. All of that has been really helpful in building like a much stronger foundation for some of the upper-division classes.
JO: I think COGS 107A (Neuroanatomy and Physiology) is one of the most useful classes since it has more of a hard science aspect. You learn about actual mechanisms of the brain, like action potential, snapses, and more.
HN: COGS 17 (Neurobiology of Cognition) was one of the most useful because even though it was a really hard class, I worked really hard to get a good grade in it. Everything I learned in the class had been a basis for all my other cognitive science classes.
What’s your favorite COGS class and why?
CRM: I took COGS 143 (Animal Cognition). That class was about studying non-human primates and crustaceans. It was like the only class that I found here at UCSD that goes over animal cognition. It kinda got me to realize that I like animal research more than human research. So for me, this was the field that I knew that CogSci was a better field for me than anthropology.
RS: My favorite so far has been COGS 179 (Electrophysiology of Cognition). It’s taught by Professor Coulson and the reason I really love this class is because I have been working in a lab where we use EEG and other electrophysiological methods. I also found the class really interesting because there was a lot of physics involved in how they were trying to tap into the electrical and chemical nature of the brain. And because of that quantification of how the brain is functioning, it was a different perspective of learning about brain activity.
JO: I think my favorite CogSci class is the first one I took: COGS 17 (Neurobiology of Cognition). It built the foundations for me for cognitive science and I really, really enjoyed it.
HN: My favorite class was COGS 101A (Sensation and Perception) because it was about sensation and perception, which are two topics that I am extremely interested in exploring.
Who’s your favorite COGS professor?
CRM: I took COGS 143 (Animal Cognition) with Dr. Johnson. She’s my favorite professor in the CogSci department. She just has so much knowledge, and she’s not necessarily strict, but she expects more from her students than other classes. It’s a vigorous class and you learn a lot, but it’s not an impossible course. Dr. Johnson also teaches COGS 17 (Neurobiology of Cognition), and what I learned from that class is applied to like all the upper-divs later on.
RS: One of my favorite professors is Drew Walker. I took PSYCH 1 (Psychology) with her and I just really enjoyed the way she taught concepts. She gave a lot of examples in class for everything that she was teaching. It was really easy to relate the material that she was teaching in class to everyday life, and kind of like seeing psychology happen in real time around me, which was really interesting.
JO: My favorite professor is Christine Johnson. She’s a really good teacher. I love it when you can tell that a professor is genuinely interested in both the subject and making sure students are learning. She had a challenging, but also fair class, which is a rare combination.
HN: My favorite professor is Dr. Johnson because even though her classes are difficult, she gives you everything you need to succeed and is extremely knowledgeable. She is always willing to help.
What did you do last summer?
CRM: Last summer I went on a 2 week road trip from San Diego to Washington state, and camped along the way. Also did a lot of sightseeing and trying new foods.
RS: For one half of the summer I went home to India, and then for the other half, I was working in two research labs on campus. One’s a psychiatry lab where we are working with schizophrenic patients, training them with EEG neuro-feedback and testing their working memory and other cognitive processes, pre, and post-treatment. The other lab is a psychology lab where I was working on a memory consolidation experiment.
JO: Last summer was actually probably the best summer I have had so far since I have been at UCSD. I was doing research at a startup in Australia. I was helping them run experiments with EEG.
HN: I went home and spent time with my parents and family.
Are you involved in any research or other activities on campus?
CRM: I work in two labs. I’m doing my thesis with Dr. Johnson on dolphin cognition. And I’m also working with Dr. Rosano on primate cognition and social cognition. They’re really great and they’re always taking research assistants. I also have a part-time job, so that takes up a good chunk of my time. So, two labs, a job, and CSSA.
RS: I’ve been working in the two research labs for the past couple of years now. The psychiatry lab is at the School of Medicine, and it’s been a really great learning experience because I’ve learned a lot of new techniques like neuro-feedback, administering EEG and also pupillometry. With the psychology lab, it’s kind of been a different experience because we’ve been working on broader psychological phenomenons, like memory and attention. I get to interact with subjects and run empirically-designed experiments. Both sets of experiences have been very helpful and great learning experiences.
JO: Other than being a part of CSSA, I work in a biology lab on campus. I use Python, since we’re trying to do automation with image and analysis for viruses in plants.
HN: Outside of CSSA, I’m also president for the Bhagat Puran Singh Health Initiative.
What advice or resources do you have for first years and people starting in the specialization or cognitive science in general?
CRM: Honestly, find labs that you think you’d be interested in. You don’t have to look too closely into the perfect lab. The best thing to do is get involved with a related lab to figure out what you want to do in research. It’s a perfect opportunity to explore it further on. However, if you know you want to into industry, labs are still great opportunities to get experience and create a portfolio to use for applications.
RS: This may sound a little cliche but you should follow your passion. I think for every student who is starting off at UCSD, or in any college as an undergraduate, they should spend some time trying to explore what it is that they are passionate about. So I would suggest just taking different classes and dabbling in different topics. Then, they should take some time to think about which classes they enjoyed.
JO: I think for the first years, I think the greatest piece of advice I can say, is to explore. I’m really glad I pushed myself to explore since I didn’t even know that cognitive science existed when I first came in.
HN: Join organizations related to your major and/or interests to find people who are similar to you. These people can help you with your career and become a huge aid to your success.
What’s your favorite part of CSSA?
CRM: I got one of my lab positions through CSSA’s open house event! I didn’t even know this lab existed. I joined CSSA because I want to do the same thing for people. Like, “Hey there are these opportunities out there, you just gotta open your eyes and they’re right there!” I guess the best thing about CSSA is the people because we all have mutual minds and we all go through similar struggles, so it’s really nice having that community.
RS: This is also a hard one. I think working with and learning from really motivated and talented people from all the different specializations across the major, whether it’s people on the exec board, extended board or from events.
JO: We have an amazing group of people. I think when you can be genuine friends as well as professional colleagues with people in your organization. I think that is a perfect and sometimes hard thing to find, and we all get along so well on both professional and friendly level that it makes being at CSSA so great.
HM: Definitely the community. The community has really helped me figure out my interests. Through them, I ended up switching my specialization. I used to be neuroscience, but after meeting people in different specializations, I realized that I actually want to do CBN because it was just more aligned with what I want to do in the future. Everyone is ambitious and constantly pushing each other to be their best your best.
What would you do differently if you could go back in time?
CRM: If I could go back in time, I would like to redo my first year at college and start working at my labs earlier.
RS: If I could go back in time, I think the only thing I probably would do differently is that I would start off as a cognitive science major. Because my whole freshman year I was a bio major and taking a bunch of chemistry and physics classes. It would have been awesome to have that one extra year of being in cognitive science. I probably would have graduated earlier if I had started in freshman year.
JO: I think if I could go back in time, I would be more prepared when coming into college. Even though coming in undeclared does give you a lot of room to explore, I think having a general idea is usually very helpful is your starting point of direction. And I think if you have more direction, it’s easier for you to talk to your professors and find opportunities. That’s harder to do if you have less direction.
HM: Wow, so many things. I would have joined CSSA a lot sooner because just this year alone, I have learned so much from this club about opportunities. I would also start applying to labs earlier to gain more experience and boost my resume.
What are your future plans after graduation?
CRM: I plan on taking a gap year to study and prepare for grad or law school. I’m conflicted between pursing a career in academia or in environmental law.
RS: So I want to go to grad school for a Ph.D. after I gain some more work experience in scientific research. I want to continue to critically and empirically explore cognitive processes like attention, language, learning, memory, sensation, perception and consciousness, from both the behavioral and biological perspectives. I’m looking to apply to programs in cognitive science, neuroscience, and psychology. Ideally, I would like to apply my research, and graduate education to work in the field of mental health.
JO: Hopefully I get a job in research, probably something similar to what I did over the summer. I’m also considering grad school, maybe a Ph.D. since I do want to become a professor but we’ll see.
HM: I want to go to graduate school. The end goal is to attain a Ph.D. or master's degree. I’m interested in research — I’m still not sure exactly what kind — but definitely something related behavioral neuroscience.