Meet Our Students

PBS is home to top-ranked Ph.D. students from around the world. Meet a few of the students conducting cutting-edge research in psychological and brain sciences. Check back often for new features and faces.

Alyssa Lawson - Cognition, Perception, Cognitive Neuroscience

Name: Alyssa Lawson

Hometown: Santa Barbara, CA

Research Specialty: The cognition of learning and instruction

I started in psychology because I thought that I wanted to go into forensic psychology. Because of this, I began a B.A. in Psychology at Chapman University. Very quickly after starting, I realized that crime was not something I wanted to be surrounded by for the rest of my life, so I started exploring other options. While at Chapman, I was involved with a few different labs that led me to my interest in understanding learning from a cognitive perspective. Specifically, I worked in a lab that investigated how having students create causal connections while learning influenced their performance on posttests. After graduating with my B.A., I moved to California State University, Los Angeles to earn my M.A. in Psychology. At CSULA, my interest in the intersection between educational psychology and cognitive psychology grew. In a lab there, I researched how people’s understanding of math influenced how they solve math problems. I am now continuing my journey into cognitive and educational psychology and developing new projects to help people learn better. 

What is a typical day like for you?

As a second year, my typical day is pretty hectic, but I still enjoy it. I split my time between attending classes, working on homework, running participants for my studies, writing about my studies, meeting with various people, keeping up with all the emails I get throughout the day, TAing, and working on developing new study ideas.

What best prepared you for a PhD in Psychology? What did you do in your undergraduate career that prepared you to be a PhD student (lab work, teaching, research)? 

What prepared me most for being in a PhD program in psychology was the research experience that I got from both from my undergraduate and Master’s schooling. I graduated a year early from my undergraduate university, so I didn’t have much time to work on research and develop research ideas, so it was beneficial to me to continue into a Master’s program. Having a basis for how to conduct research from the very beginning (the conceptualization of a research idea) to the very end (writing up and submitting the manuscript to journals) was very helpful in preparing me for this program. Also, by working in different labs while in school, I figured out how to balance work, school, and research. That was super helpful going into this program.

What advice do you have for incoming students?

I would tell anyone going into a PhD program to make sure that you love what you are doing. Working on a PhD is a lot of work and can be very overwhelming, but if you love research and the area you are doing research in, you will be able to more easily get past any obstacles that comes up. 

Why did you choose UCSB?

I chose to attend UCSB because my research interests matched well with the research of my advisor, Dr. Richard Mayer and working with Dr. Mayer was a huge opportunity that I couldn’t pass up. I also chose Santa Barbara because I am from here and wanted to come back to the beautiful beach town I grew up in.

What do you like about getting your PhD in Santa Barbara? What do you do in Santa Barbara in your (precious) spare time?

Like I said, Santa Barbara is my home, so I love that I get to work on my PhD in a place that is familiar. Even so, working on a PhD here is such a different experience than growing up here. Many of the places that people in the program go to are places I had absolutely no idea about while growing up! In my limited spare time, I like to walk my dog on some of the many trails SB has to offer. 

What are your future plans?

I’m still figuring it out. I definitely would like to keep doing research in my interest area, and I think I would like to stay in academia. But, I am open to whatever is out there.

Joanne Stasiak - Cognition, Perception, Cognitive Neuroscience

Name: Joanne Stasiak

Hometown: Queens, NY

Research Specialty: Emotion-metacognition, psychophysiology, cognitive and social neuroscience

What is a typical day like for you? Because I know I will probably be bouncing around between lab and classes throughout the day, I try to make the most of my mornings by catching the sunrise at the Goleta pier. I usually head to lab soon after to organize the things I need to do for the day, which usually include attending one or two classes, joining a couple of meetings, prepping for my weekly TA section, and working on my independent research projects. I feel really lucky to be a part of a lively lab, so when I need to take a break from work I can also easily chat and catch up with my wonderful labmates.

What best prepared you for a PhD in psychology? What did you do in your undergraduate career that prepared you to be a PhD student (lab work, teaching, research)? I worked in a research lab for two years in my undergraduate institution and presenting at national conferences as an undergrad was one of the most galvanizing experiences I had; being able to share my research with other interested individuals and learning first hand from incredible researchers was so rewarding and motivated me to continue my research career. I worked as a lab manager for two years after graduation, where I was able to gain more technical skills with fMRI and hone my specific research interests. I think it is common as an undergraduate to just work on existing projects for other professors or grad students, but in my full-time research position I was able to focus more on the questions I was interested in, which made me more confident about applying to PhD programs, as I had a much more concrete idea of what I wanted to study. 

What advice do you have for incoming students? Look for collaborators! It has been immensely enjoyable to work alongside other labs and gain new perspectives of research design. Joining other lab meetings (inside and outside of your area) is a great way to become familiarized with other research being conducted in the department. Also, make time to hang out with your cohort! Those individuals are going through very similar emotional journeys as you are, and being able to have that support system is incredibly rewarding, so take advantage of it!

Why did you choose UCSB? When I was applying to programs and interviewing, I prioritized my research interests and the student-advisor relationship over everything else. I felt like the direction Regina Lapate, my current advisor, wanted to go fit exactly what I wanted to study, which was compounded by how enthusiastic, warm, and unfailingly compassionate she was. After coming to UCSB, the lab environment was better than I could have asked for - the beautiful scenery is a bonus.

What do you like about getting your PhD in Santa Barbara? What do you do in Santa Barbara in your (precious) spare time? I had never seen mountains before moving to California, so waking up everyday to the surreal setting is such a gratifying way to start the day. In my free time, I love hanging out with my cohort, trekking to different Goleta coffee shops, and fantasizing about one day being able to surf.

What are your future plans? I would love to stay in academia and either be a neuroscience professor or the PI of my own lab; I like how many opportunities there are for post-grad work, but being able to continue asking questions I care about would be exceptionally rewarding!

Dylan Benkley - Developmental and Evolutionary Psychology

Name: Dylan Benkley

Hometown: Carlisle, MA

Research Specialty: Evolutionary Psychology, Cooperation, Emotion

What is a typical day like for you? Inasmuch as there is a "typical" day for a grad student I usually find myself with a mix of time spent on classes, TAing, reading research articles, and attending to research projects at whatever state they are in (e.g., design, running participants, data analysis, paper writing).

What best prepared you for a PhD in psychology? What did you do in your undergraduate career that prepared you to be a PhD student (lab work, teaching, research)?

I have a somewhat unique undergraduate background in that I received my B.S. in Mechanical Engineering before eventually transitioning to Psychology. While the content was certainly much different this did give me a lot of skills, particularly on the technical side, that have aided me greatly as a PhD student. Statistical analysis and problem solving is a big part of doing research and this is something I felt confident about due to my background. Additionally, I was able to get some great hands-on experience working in two psychology research labs at UC Berkeley before coming to UCSB. Being a part of those research teams and getting to work on my own independent project were great preparation for my graduate work here.

What advice do you have for incoming students?

One of the best pieces of advice I received, but also initially one of the most difficult to follow, was to not be afraid to be wrong or to not know something. One of the best skills you can have as a graduate student is being able to teach yourself new things and find answers when you are stuck. This necessarily includes admitting when you don't know something and asking lots of questions from those who are more knowledgeable than you. No one expects you to know everything right away.

Why did you choose UCSB?

My advisor and my research fit with her were a big part of my decision to come to UCSB. Additionally, the DEVO program and its faculty provide an incredible environment for evolutionary research. Lastly, who can say no to living in this gorgeous place?

What do you like about getting your PhD in Santa Barbara? What do you do in Santa Barbara in your (precious) spare time?

I have really appreciated the people and community at UCSB, and in the PBS department specifically. I also love the outdoors, so having easy access to hiking trails, the beach, and parks has been a nice getaway from work. Santa Barbara is certainly not a big city, but that is part of the laid back charm that I personally enjoy. 

What are your future plans?

At the moment I still have a few years left before I finish graduate school, but my goal is to stay in academia and eventually be a professor at a research focused university. Overall, research is what I love to do, so I want to find something that allows me to pursue that passion.

Katy Walter - Developmental and Evolutionary Psychology

Name: Katy Walter

Hometown: Lafayette, California

Research Specialty: mate preferences, mate choice, sex differences

For undergrad, I went to a small liberal arts school, Vassar College, in New York. I majored in Science, Technology, and Society, a multidisciplinary study of the way that science works and interacts with the people and tools around it. The curriculum exposed me to a variety of fields, including psychology, physics, economics, and alternative energy technology. However, after taking a course in social psychology alongside a course about bio-social controversies, I became very interested in how people study sex differences and human mating, and the perspectives of evolutionary psychologists. This interest led me to write my senior thesis about the controversies surrounding research on sex differences. After finishing my senior thesis, I realized that I was not content to just critique the findings of others. I wanted to contribute, and therefore decided to pursue a PhD in psychology.

What is a typical day like for you?

Each day is different and a graduate student wears many hats. We are, at the same time, researchers, students, teachers, mentors, and mentees, all of which is incredibly rewarding but makes for a busy schedule!  I try to spend as much time as I can on research, but also spend a lot of time helping students and RAs, and prepping for and participating in lab meetings and class.  If possible, I try to keep my mornings free to work on research and then schedule any meetings and tackle other work in the afternoon. I also try to schedule an exercise class in the evening after work to de-stress. 

What best prepared you for a PhD in Psychology? What did you do in your undergraduate career that prepared you to be a PhD student (lab work, teaching, research)? 

Writing a senior thesis! Completing a long-term and largely independent project in an area that I was extremely passionate about was a great way to prepare for graduate school.  Research takes a long time so being able to work on something for an entire year in undergrad and create an original piece of work was good practice for graduate school. Additionally, getting some experience as a research assistant was helpful. I wasn’t a psychology major so I ended up volunteering as an RA in a couple labs during my two gap years in between undergrad and graduate school. I found that I loved my RA tasks: sorting through open-ended data sets and working on lit reviews. My enthusiasm for my RA work solidified my ambition to pursue a career in psychology research, and helped reaffirm my interest in human mating. 

What advice do you have for incoming students?

Make sure you are passionate about the area you are studying. I realized after undergrad that there were unanswered questions in human mating psychology that I believe I would be happy working on answering for the rest of my life. Graduate school is filled with challenges, rejections, and long-stretches without feedback so intrinsic motivation is extremely important. Along the same lines, I believe a PhD is a perseverance degree. 

Why did you choose UCSB?

First, UCSB is a great place to study evolutionary psychology! We have so many amazing faculty and graduate students here who study the mind from an evolutionary perspective. Second, my advisor Dr. Dan Conroy-Beam is fantastic and we have a lot of overlapping research interests.  Lastly, the psychology department at UCSB has a really collaborative atmosphere and people tend to have, or at least try to have, work-life balance. 

What do you like about getting your PhD in Santa Barbara? What do you do in Santa Barbara in your (precious) spare time?

I can walk from lab and be looking out over the ocean in about 2 minutes- this is still crazy to me! In my spare time I love hanging out with friends and family, exploring all the nearby towns, wine and beer tasting, and working out.  

What are your future plans?

I hope to be a professor someday, but remain open to whether this will be at a large university or small college. 

Connor Gibbs - Social Psychology

Name:Connor Gibbs

Hometown:Irvine, CA

Research Specialty:Compensatory Control, Self-Affirmation, Implicit Bias

What is a typical day like for you?Most days end up being a different mix of meetings with my advisor, labs, or my RAs, classes, answering emails, and of course working on my research projects. Weekends tend to be focused on spending time with my partner and friends.

What best prepared you for a PhD in psychology? What did you do in your undergraduate career that prepared you to be a PhD student (lab work, teaching, research)? I was lucky to be able to work closely with my undergrad advisor on her research projects. I went to Westmont College which doesn't have any graduate students so faculty often rely on undergrads to help with their projects. I was lucky enough to get to work on several different projects at different stages in the research process which gave me good experience and first-hand knowledge of what conducting research is like.

What advice do you have for incoming students? Be intentional about setting your desired work-life balance boundaries early. I knew going into grad school that I wanted some level of work-life balance, which is absolutely achievable, but it's important to set those boundaries and expectations early because it's much harder to put those boundaries up after a routine/expectations have already been set.

Why did you choose UCSB?I did my undergrad at Westmont College which is on the south side of Santa Barbara so I was already familiar with the area. I also knew my current advisor and a few other members of the department through my undergrad advisor who did her undergrad at UCSB. During my visit I felt like I fit well with the faculty and other grad students. Plus, even though I'm not much of a beach person, who could say no to working just feet from the beach.

What do you like about getting your PhD in Santa Barbara? What do you do in Santa Barbara in your (precious) spare time?I enjoy the small town feel of Santa Barbara. I've never really been a fan of big cities/college towns and for me Santa Barbara is the perfect size. For me there's enough to do between the restaurants, easy access to nature, great downtown, etc. without feeling like a big college town. Plus, LA is only about 2 hours from Santa Barbara so if I ever wanted to go to a bigger city I can easily make a weekend trip out of it. That said, I know some people don't like how small Santa Barbara is and wish they were in a bigger city, so ultimately it's up to everyone's individual preferences.

What are your future plans?I'm hoping that after I finish my PhD I can find a job in academia. I'm still deciding if that looks like more of a research or teaching focused position but I'd like to try to stay in academia, if I can.

Rammy Salem - Social Psychology

Name:Rammy Salem

Hometown: Bayonne, NJ

Research Specialty: Intergroup Relations and Social Identity

After graduating from Cornell University, I tried out different career paths, and I kept in touch with my intro psychology professor, Dr. James Maas. He told me about an opportunity to become a teaching assist for the intro psych course at Cornell’s branch campus in Qatar. That experience planted the seed in my head to consider pursuing graduate studies in psychology. I investigated the different areas within psychology, and contacted some professionals in the different fields to get a better sense of which area I would enjoy the most, and came to the conclusion that social psychology was the best fit. 

What is a typical day like for you?

Most days consist of some combination of classes and meetings. I enjoy learning with and from others, and sharing my thoughts and ideas as well. This iterative exchange of ideas, whether with undergraduate students, fellow graduate students, or faculty, is what makes most days interesting. 

What best prepared you for a PhD in Psychology? What did you do in your undergraduate career that prepared you to be a PhD student (lab work, teaching, research)? 

Although I did not major in psychology as an undergraduate, I served as an undergraduate teaching assistant for the introductory psychology course at Cornell, and did some psychology research on perceptions of subliminal visual stimuli. In order to better prepare myself for graduate school, I enrolled in the post-baccalaureate program in Psychology and Social Behavior at UC Irvine, in which I took core psychology courses and obtained much-needed research experience.  

What advice do you have for incoming students?

Keep a list of ideas with you somewhere, whether you prefer to jot it down in a notebook or store it digitally on your computer or phone. While reading journal articles can be a good source of finding gaps in the literature, you can also derive inspiration from your daily activities as well, such as watching television, sitting in a coffee shop, or even standing in line at the DMV. 

Why did you choose UCSB?

While I was completing my post-baccalaureate program at UC Irvine, Professor David Sherman was invited to give a talk, and I thought that he and his research were very interesting. After researching UCSB, I found that there were a number of other prominent faculty members in the social psychology area like Drs. Diane Mackie and Brenda Major that were researching interesting subject matter. During my interviews, I got a sense that I would be able to research topics that were important to me, and I also discovered that a few other graduate students and professors at the time also happened to be Cornell alumni, so I figured that if they like it here, I probably will too. The scenic location was also a nice perk.   

What do you like about getting your PhD in Santa Barbara? What do you do in Santa Barbara in your (precious) spare time?

I like the freedom of being able to explore topics that I find interesting, and the autonomy to pursue them. I think Santa Barbara has quite an eclectic range of dining options for a city of its size, so I like to try out different restaurants with my wife.  

What are your future plans?

I would like to work in a university or other research-oriented organization, but I am open to whatever the future has in store for me.

Delancey Wu - Social Psychology

Name:Delancey Wu

Hometown: Rockville, MD

Research Specialty: Close relationships, culture, nonverbal communication 

I went to Carnegie Mellon University for my undergrad as a Psychology major. To be honest, I picked my major without knowing much about what psychology was about, but it turns out I picked the right major! I really liked social psychology because it was cool how you can study human behavior and abstract concepts, like trusting a romantic partner, in a quantitative, scientific manner. Moreover, it was fun learning how current behaviors and feelings can be associated with changes in longitudinal outcomes, such as relationship quality and health. After learning about social psychology in a class setting, I wanted the chance to participate in the research process myself! I joined a lab researching close relationships, and now as a PhD candidate, I am building upon the work I helped with in undergrad.

What is a typical day like for you?

Feed and walk my dog, go to campus to work on research or go to class, walk and feed my dog again, finish up any last-minute work at home, and then wind down the day by watching YouTube videos and playing video games.

What best prepared you for a PhD in Psychology? What did you do in your undergraduate career that prepared you to be a PhD student (lab work, teaching, research)? 

I was lucky that I was able to find a lab I loved relatively early in my undergrad and stayed with them until I graduated. Working in a lab for three years in undergraduate gave me ample time to develop basic research skills, explore what I want to study, and ask other graduate students and faculty what the research life is like. 

Also, being able to do an honors thesis in my senior year tremendously helped with deciding to get a PhD. Going through the process of completing an honors thesis was really the only opportunity I had to experience what it’s like to run a study from beginning to end, before deciding to devote 5+ years to graduate school. I highly recommend those interested in graduate school to either do an honors thesis or be part of a similar project in order to understand the ins and outs of research.

What advice do you have for incoming students?

Take graduate school seriously but also have fun with it. Picking research topics you are genuinely interested in will help you stay motivated and keep up with the workload. There are definitely times in graduate school where the work is overwhelming, so working on ideas you care about can make that work more manageable.

Why did you choose UCSB?

The obvious answer is the beach environment, but the real answer is because of the chance to work with my amazing advisor, Dr. Nancy Collins. Nancy is the perfect combination of thoughtful feedback and positivity. It’s an understatement to say that Nancy is an expert in the field we work in, so she always provides valuable feedback for how to improve my projects. At the same time, she delivers her comments in the most positive and self-affirming way possible. If I ever need a pick-me-up, I reach out to Nancy :)

What do you like about getting your PhD in Santa Barbara? What do you do in Santa Barbara in your (precious) spare time?

Santa Barbara is a really good place to be able to do work in a relaxing environment, so if I ever need a break, 99% of the time I can just walk outside to recharge myself. If I’m free to explore Santa Barbara, I like going to the local coffeeshops (I recommend Dune Coffee Roasters, Handlebar, Caje, and Old Town Coffee) and finding a new hiking trail or a dog park to take my dog out to play.

What are your future plans?

The current plan is to get either a research-focused or a teaching-focused position in academia. So far in my time at graduate school, I’ve learned that I like both conducting research as well as teaching psychology to students, so as of now, I would be pretty satisfied if I get either kind of position.

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