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Why I Majored in Cognitive Science

Sadaf Khan ’20

I had taken an early interest in the brain as a high-schooler but realized by my first year that the questions that intrigued me dealt more so with the mind as a mental rather than a biological model. My concurrent major in linguistics informed my interests in the mind as well, and I came upon cognitive science through the joint department. I wanted to know about language as a phenomenon, not only its describable properties but its instantiation in the human brain.

I spent the summer of 2018 studying the processing of Heavy Noun Phrase Shift (HNPS) through time perception on a Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP) with Visiting Assistant Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science Laura Johnson in the department. This project explicitly brought my two interests together (in a subfield also known as psycholinguistics) and was in part inspired by my observation that generative syntax and cognitive science had entirely different models for linguistic phenomena that didn't seem to acknowledge one another. Through working on this project, I learned more about the different goals of these two fields that lead to these apparent “gaps” in communicating with one another.

I spent the next summer of 2019 working in Susan Carey's Development Lab at Harvard University, working with Stephen Ferrigno on children's representations of nonlinguistic recursive structures. Recursion is a fraught topic in the cognitive science and linguistics literature, and my project's nonlinguistic findings were somewhat controversial to psycholinguists. As a result, I am centering my thesis on theories relating to the processing and production of explicitly linguistic recursion, drawing on my work from the summer and extending it in new directions as well.

Ladin Boluk '21

I came to Pomona completely undecided about what I wanted to study and what I wanted to do with it. So, my goal was to just take classes I was interested in and figure out my path as I go.

First semester of sophomore year, I found myself taking Introduction to Linguistics, Cognitive Psychology, and Discrete Math and Functional Programming—3 classes from 3 different fields of science—simply because I enjoyed them. It turns out, there is a major that combines all of these interests of mine, and it was cognitive science.

This interdisciplinary aspect of the major is what I love about it the most: it diminishes the artificial boundaries we have set between disciplines. In a cognitive science class, you can apply models from computer science to neuroscience to understand the brain, while discussing its philosophical implications on what we think of as “the human mind.” Thus, cognitive science is not only a topic, but also a mindset that allows you to draw from what you learn and make connections between what you know. I love how the different classes I am taking from different departments complement each other.

I used to think of a major as something that limits the possible paths you could take after college, but instead, cognitive science opened up possibilities that I didn’t even know existed. It is possible to pursue academia, but is equally common to go into industries such as technology. Last summer, I was a marketing and strategic communication intern at a digital consultancy agency. Right now, I am working with Professor Lise Abrams to help develop the curriculum for a course on Memory and Language. I will be a teaching assistant for the course next semester, and I am excited for all the upcoming opportunities.

Ben Hu ’21

Before coming to Pomona, I had long been interested in the nature of the mind and its relationship to the world that is essentially material. I declared cognitive science as my major at the end of the first semester because I envisioned that the flexibility of the program at Pomona and the interdisciplinary nature of the field could best satisfy my academic interests. I was able to design a curriculum in which I could study the mind from the perspectives of different fields, ranging from computer science to psychology, without committing myself entirely to any of them.

Back then, I was most excited by the approaches the analytical philosophy takes to inquire into the mind and the advance in neuroimaging techniques in cognitive neuroscience. Without worrying too much about the major requirements, I took courses on the philosophy of mind and metaphysics which shaped my understanding of the mind. I was also fortunate enough to be offered an internship opportunity in a neuroimaging lab using fMRI to explore the relationship between language and aging at Pennsylvania State University during my first summer by the former chair of the department Professor Deborah Burke. And when I came back from it, I took a method course on fMRI offered for the first time. Together these resources at Pomona responded to what I wished to learn and experience and confirmed that I had made the right decision.

To me, cognitive science is the embodiment of a liberal arts education. It not only brought intellectual breadth by exposing me to its contributing disciplines but also trained me to evaluate arguments through formal logic and frame and approach questions with more nuances. I am also more aware of the biases which root in our cognitive systems and prevail in every aspect of our daily life. And these are by no means confined to the study of the mind.

Marie-Emmanuelle Tano ’21

I came into Pomona as an intended neuroscience major, but didn't like that I would have to take two semesters worth of biology and chemistry before I was able to even touch an Intro to Neuro class. So, I chose to major in cognitive science instead because I still wanted to feed my interest in the brain, but in a way where I could also interrogate it from a non-biological lens. I think my favorite aspect about the major is how interdisciplinary it is, and how I have been able to critically evaluate the human mind through courses in linguistics, psychology, philosophy and computer science—which have all contributed credits towards graduation. I think that by the time I finish the major, I will have only taken two other classes in the department itself, apart from the introductory courses.

The two classes that have had the greatest impact on my academic prowess are probably Introduction to Linguistics with Professor Nicole Holliday at Pomona and Bilingualism with Professor Carmen Fought at Pitzer. Other than the fact that both courses have contributed greatly to my actual research projects, they provided such an interesting commentary on society’s effect on language and vice versa.

Outside of my academic courses, I do research with Professor Lise Abrams on Tip-Of-Tongue (TOT) states and how different types of words can help resolve a TOT. I am also a double major with Africana studies, which allows me to do research through Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program. But, because of how interdisciplinary the Ling/Cog Sci department is, I was easily able to blend concepts from Africana studies, linguistics, cognitive science and psychology to look at how the anti-Black perception of African-American English harms Black students and the Black community in general, on a psychological level. With Professor Holliday, we spent the last two semesters as well as the summer fine-tuning my project and narrowing down my research scope. The study is still in its beginning stages, but I am super excited to actually begin.

Vienna Vance ’21

I knew I wanted to major in cognitive science by the end of my first semester at Pomona. I had taken Introduction to Cognitive Science and Introduction to Linguistics, and I really enjoyed both classes. My love for the subject has grown from there. I have enjoyed studying topics as wide-ranging as artificial intelligence, animal consciousness and music cognition. These topics (and more!) complement each other and contribute to a richer understanding of the brain and the mind.

I have worked for two years at Jumpstart, a fantastic work-study position where I teach preschool students as part of a team of Claremont Colleges students. This has complemented my classroom learning quite nicely, especially while I was taking Child Development. I have also taken advantage of Pomona’s PCIP program, where I was paid to intern at a local enrichment center for children with developmental disabilities. I planned and executed curriculum for the children, and I gained valuable experiences that I could share in Pomona class discussions.

I am interested in a career in school psychology and I believe that my cognitive science major gives me a great foundation to reach this goal. The combination of classroom learning and applied experience I've had has served me well, and I'm so grateful to Pomona for all its helpful academic and career resources.