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.