A diagram from scholarpedia.org that shows the relationship of reinforcement learning in different fields. Red shows theoretical aspects and green shows biological aspects. Adrian is inspired by this modeling framework. Click the image to read more.

Cognitive Science major Adrian Barr obtained his B.S. here at UC Merced. Adrian recently won a spot in one of the country’s top programs, at Indiana University, where he’ll be working with Professor Josh Brown on computational models of memory and executive control. At UC Merced, Adrian worked with Professor David Noelle, who notes that Adrian’s acceptance is wonderful news and “speaks highly of [his] accomplishments!”.

We asked Adrian about his experiences at UC Merced and his exciting PhD training that he’ll be starting this fall. Here are some thoughts that he shared.

1. How has the CogSci program helped you figure out what you’re interested in, and fulfill your grad school goals?

When I first got to UC Merced, I actually had no idea what CogSci was. I always had an interest in the brain and how high level processes like learning and memory can arise from low level electrical signals in neurons. I knew I could study psychology if I wanted to learn about behavior, or biology to learn about the anatomy of the brain but it wasn’t until I took Introduction to Cognitive Science that I discovered that there was a whole field dedicated to the relationship between the two. Once I started taking upper division courses, I was able to immerse myself in the areas of cognitive science that I found fascinating. Being able to work in a couple of the cognitive science labs we have on campus and working with graduate students gave me valuable research experience and showed me what it would be like to continue pursuing a career in cognitive science beyond a BS.

2. Tell us a bit about your research interests.

I am interested in building computer models of the brain to understand behaviors such as learning and memory and using brain imaging techniques such as fMRI to confirm or improve these models. Computational modeling is a really cool area of cognitive science because it allows us to study complex systems using controllable parameters. Understanding the way our brain works is the underlying goal of cognitive scientists and by using models we can see how different areas of the brain interact with each other and predict how complications like damage or illness will impact behavior. Computational modeling is a powerful tool in many areas of research such as machine learning, predicting weather patterns, and understanding biological processes like protein folding.

3. What advice can you give to students interested in applying to grad schools from UC Merced?

The best advice I can give is talk to your professors and find out what kind of research they are doing. UC Merced is a very active research university and there is so much cool stuff happening in the CogSci labs every day. Don’t hesitate to talk to your favorite professors and see if they are looking for research assistants. You have the benefit of being part of a great cognitive science program here and the professors love working one-on-one with students that have similar interests. I guarantee it will be one of your biggest takeaways from your time here at UC Merced.