PhD Students

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.

Alex Boone - Cognition, Perception, Cognitive Neuroscience

Name: Alex Boone

Hometown: St. Louis, Missouri

Research Area: Cognition, Perception, Cognitive Neuroscience (CPCN)

Research Specialty: Spatial Cognition

I went to undergrad at the University of Missouri where I studied history and psychology. I did research with Nelson Cowan and his lab for several years including a year after graduation. My early research interests were in basic cognition and human memory, but when I realized I could pursue both spatial studies and cognition I positioned myself to go in that direction. I moved to Philadelphia to manage a lab at the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center at Temple University. It was there that I really figured out how big the field was. As part of that job, I met a lot of cool people including my current advisor, Mary Hegarty.

What is a typical day like for you?

To stay on top of my work, I have to really structure my time. As a first year student, a day consisted of leading discussion sections as well as work for my own classes. In between those things, I read what I could to stay on top of my work. I like to work as much as I can during the day so that my evenings are free. Now that I have learned to balance my classes with being a TA, my days are more focused on running participants and working in the lab while reading and writing as much as I can.

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)?

In the immediate sense, the best preparation I got for the program was working as a lab manager. I did everything the graduate students did plus the other important aspects of psych labs that you don’t always think about like writing grant budgets and dealing with administration. I have to say, though, that I wouldn’t be here without the mentorship of the people I’ve worked for.

What advice do you have for incoming students?

You’ll get out of this what you put in to it. Be ready to do some work, but don’t forget to take breaks and live your life.

Why did you choose UCSB?

I chose UCSB for several reasons, but when I came to graduate recruitment weekend and meet with the faculty and students, I felt like this was the place for me. No one was uppity and everyone had the time to meet with you.

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

When I have some time, I like to hang out with my dog and go to the beach. I also watch a lot of sports. That keeps my non-work mind active.

What I really like about Santa Barbara and being in a Ph.D program here is that it matches my lifestyle. I come from a real “hometown” sort of place, and moving to Philadelphia really made me think about where I was most comfortable. Santa Barbara is the best of everything. You have the city if you want it, you have the country if you want that, you also have the beach. You cannot go wrong.

What are your future plans?

Eventually I want to be a faculty member somewhere, but there is plenty of time between now and then.

Yi-Wen Wang - Cognition, Perception, Cognitive Neuroscience

Name: Yi-Wen Wang

Hometown: Taipei, Taiwan

Research Area: Cognition, Perception, Cognitive Neuroscience (CPCN)

Research Specialty: Perceptual Category Learning; Memory Systems in the Brain

I received my BSc and MSc degrees in Computer Science from National Taiwan University (NTU), and then worked as a programmer for more than 3 years. While writing programs was fun, I could not get a sense of meaning from the products that I was working on. I love reading, so I switched to the publishing industry, and eventually became a freelance translator. It was a meaningful job for me because I could help people in Taiwan get access to information from around the world. But as time went by, I realized that being a translator limited me in the sense that I had very little to no input into the accuracy of the information that I was helping to put out. That was when I decided to pursue a PhD degree.

So the next question was which field to devote myself to. I’ve observed that in society in general there is a high demand for greater knowledge about how our brains work. And yet, I’ve also noticed that there is a lack of knowledge in this field. Thus, I feel that the field of brain science needs more researchers to fill this need in our daily lives. And that led me to audit some courses in the psychology department and medical school, and it was real eye opening experience for me. I found out how scientists are now able to use new technologies to study the neural activities in human brains, and I realized the programming skills that I have could be a powerful tool in this field. Thus, I went back to NTU and earned my second MSc degree in Psychology, and made sure that this was what I wanted to do. Then I applied to UCSB because I wanted to be involved in the intriguing studies people are doing here.

What is a typical day like for you?

I am a night owl, so I do most of the work that requires clear thinking at night, such as writing, designing new studies and data analysis. During the day, I go to classes, talks, meetings (with my advisor, the lab members, or my research assistants) and run studies.

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)?

It might not sound straightforward but I think the programming skills and the mathematical training that I got from my computer science background are of great help. As a scientist, a great portion of our work is spent on designing studies for testing our hypothesis and working with data. In our lab, we run studies on computers, and my programming skills provide me more freedom in writing codes for new studies. In addition, thinking about how the human brain might work similarly to or differently from a computer often provides an interesting point of reference and questions from unexpected angles. And the mathematical training is certainly important for examining the data from several different aspects and making sense of them.

What advice do you have for incoming students?

There are two things that I keep reminding myself and would like to share here. The first is to make every effort to speak up. Share what you do whenever you get a chance, and don’t hesitate to ask when you need help or new ideas. For an introverted person like me, it really takes effort to do that, and the fact that English is my second language and that the culture in Taiwan emphasizes modesty are certainly not helping. But I noticed that people feel more comfortable when they get a chance to know more about me, and they are glad when you approach them. Most people here are nice and supportive, thus this is a perfect environment to get more comfortable speaking up in a group.

A second thing to keep in mind is to not define your success by whether or not you’re better than others. We all come here by passing all the strict selection processes, so some of us might get into a habit of comparing ourselves with others. But when you focus on doing good research instead of trying to compete with your colleagues, someone who you might have considered a potential competitor might, in turn, become someone who helps you learn and progress faster. And you can have more fun in doing research when you are able to focus on and appreciate the discoveries that you helped to make.

Why did you choose UCSB?

It is because of my advisor, Dr. Ashby. I found out about his work when I was taking a neural modeling course in Taiwan. I wrote to him and asked questions that I got when I was trying to replicate modeling results in one of his articles, and he offered much help and was very open-minded. Our interview during the recruitment week confirmed for me that he is a scientist with very clear explanations of his ideas, solid knowledge in math and neuroscience, as well as the best personality that you can expect from a mentor. I also found that his research is all about building models based on evidence from empirical data, cell recordings in animals and fMRI in humans, which from my point of view will play a key role in furthering our understanding of how our brains really work.

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

Number one is the perfect weather! Unlike my home, Taiwan, you never have to worry that a storm or typhoon (it’s like a hurricane) might affect your studies in any way. In addition to that, Santa Barbara is a charming town with almost every convenience of a city.

In my spare time, I love watching wildlife, especially birds – there are so many kinds, and most of them I have never seen in my home town. I bought a pair of compact binoculars and it turned out to be a great investment in my daily fun. I enjoy watching them on a nearby trail, on campus, and even at home through the window! I even found a nail under my roof that once in a while you will find a black phoebe sleeping on.

A bonus tip – if you love going to the symphony, don’t forget to sign up for MUSIC 1. The course is offered each quarter, and you will get a free ticket for an orchestral performance at the Granada Theatre. The only thing you have to do for a pass is to attend the concert and write a short essay. The seat might not be perfectly close, and that is when your binoculars will really come in handy!

What are your future plans?

Keep doing research, whether in academia, in a company, or on my own.

Youngki Hong - Social Psychology

Name: Youngki Hong

Hometown: Seoul, South Korea

Research Area: Social Psychology (SOC)

Research Specialty: Social Cognition, Intergroup Relations, Embodiment

I first moved to the United States in 2009 as a high school exchange student. My initial goal to learn English transformed into a love for the American culture and lifestyle—I didn’t want to leave! After moving to several different states in high school, I finally settled in as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, where I studied Psychology and Statistics. Since I was younger, I have always been fascinated by how people think and behave, which made my decision to study Psychology a no-brainer. Through my coursework I developed a strong interest in social psychology prompting me to pursue research opportunities. I worked in several labs studying topics in social cognition, perception, and health psychology. My research inspired me to develop my own projects related to social identity and prejudice. Delving into my thesis project made me realize how much there is to learn and inspired me to pursue an academic career in graduate school.

What is a typical day like for you?

My schedule varies each quarter, but I generally take classes, serve as a TA, conduct my own research projects, work out at the on-campus gym, and hangout on the beach. On weekends I spend time with friends (who are also in the PBS program) and catch up on unfinished assignments. Overall, my schedule is flexible, which makes it easier to manage all my schoolwork and research while maintaining my own social life.

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)?

As a college freshman, I attended a workshop on “how to apply for graduate school”, where I learned that professors want people who already behave like graduate students. Taking this advice, I started working as a research assistant my sophomore year, enrolled in graduate level courses, and pursued independent research opportunities. By the end of my senior year, I completed a couple of my own studies which helped me make a smooth transition into graduate school. In addition, I feel as though because of my training in Statistics, I am better able to understand and interpret not only my own research but also have insights for other people’s research, which is a critical skill set to have in graduate school.

What advice do you have for incoming students?

Don’t be afraid to learn new things! In addition to doing what you love the most (conducting research), you will need to learn things that you may have not been exposed to before, such as programming, advanced statistics, and interdisciplinary research. It may seem intimidating at first, but once you get the hang of it, it can be as fun as doing research!

Why did you choose UCSB?

Most importantly, I chose UCSB because of my advisor, whose work and vision perfectly matched my own research interests. I also liked the collaborative environment in the department. There are plenty of opportunities for collaboration not just within areas but across different areas as well. Of course, I’d be lying if beautiful weather and close distance to the beach did not contribute to my decision to come to UCSB.

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

Having lived in Minnesota for four years, coming to Santa Barbara was a huge upgrade for me weather-wise. I like to go to the beach and spend time outside, and the weather is almost always perfect for that. There are also plenty of opportunities for fun in Santa Barbara; a few things I have tried so far include yoga, kickboxing, rock climbing, and wine tasting! In my spare time, I like to work out, watch TV shows and sports, cook, or just hang out with friends.

What are your future plans?

If the opportunities are given, I hope to stay in academia and become an academic researcher/professor in the US. However, the future is full of uncertainties, and I try to live in the moment for now.