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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Undeclared? Try a new interdisciplinary field

Over the years, a new field of study is emerging to combine various areas of expertise together to help understand one main topic: the human mind.

When cognitive science graduate Joshua Peterson and fourth-year cognitive science major Antonio Dominiguez transferred to UC Davis, neither could choose a single major they were interested in.

“There wasn’t a major that seemed like it fit for us because we are interested in many different things,” Dominiguez said. “The main reason the major interested me is that it brings together a whole scope of fields to study what we are all curious about: the way our minds work.”

After being friends for nearly two decades, Peterson and Dominiguez came together in 2010 and had the cognitive science major approved under the independent major program at UC Davis in 2011.

“They didn’t have [a cognitive science program] at Davis and I was sad about that,” Peterson said. “So I used the individual major option to try and copy Berkeley’s plan and I tried to go class through class and add a few extra things and make it a bit more rigorous.”

Since the program has been approved, two additional cognitive science majors, with differing emphases, have also been approved so that the major may appeal to a wider variety of students.

Other than Peterson and Dominiguez, two other students have declared cognitive science majors at UC Davis, one of whom is Tanya Singh, a fourth-year cognitive science major with an emphasis on neuroscience and Cognitive Science Club president.

“[Cognitive science] is a multidisciplinary approach; it involves a necessary variety of perspectives,” Singh said.

After being unsure of what she wanted to major in early in her college career, she said it was satisfying to discover cognitive science.

“It was like that feeling when you are craving something, but you don’t know what you are craving until you eat it and feel satisfied,” Singh said. “Having so many questions left over is not a good feeling and I feel like just one field [of study] wouldn’t do it for me.”

Each week, the Cognitive Science Club has guest speakers to inform members about the field and help foster further interest in the major.

[Cognitive science] was born out of pure curiosity,” Singh said. “People may not want to change their majors because they are too far along, but they would like to learn about it because it’s new and upcoming and that’s the purpose of our club.”

The main draw to the cognitive science major is the opportunity to learn about varied perspectives on the way the human mind works, combining empirical and theoretical approaches from six, seven and even eight different fields, Peterson said.

The multidisciplinary nature is one of the reasons that this major can be made possible at UC Davis, because of the various departments already established.

“I think UC Davis has all the resources it needs to have cognitive science [become] a major program but we just aren’t there yet, so we’re giving it a little push,” Dominiguez said. “Cognitive science fits for a lot of people, not just me. There are a lot of people that this major is interesting to and fitting for so I am looking forward to having the next generation of cognitive science majors.”

Dr. Bernard Molyneux, UC Davis philosophy professor and cognitive science major adviser, said that the various fields of study all built into one major is what sets this major apart from others.

“In psychology you aren’t going to be asked how to build something. The emphasis is going to be on how it will behave. The idea of being a cognitive science is you learn from a variety of different angles,” he said. “What’s unique is the variety of approaches you bring to the task.”

Molyneux does not have a degree in cognitive science; however, his background in philosophy and artificial intelligence set him up perfectly to take on the role of the major’s adviser.

“I guess I have always been a cognitive scientist at heart,” Molyneux said. “When some students came to me to advise cognitive science, I was delighted.”

Peterson said that multiple fields of study within one major provides an advantage not only when studying for an undergraduate degree, but also afterwards, when applying to grad school and getting a job.

“If you major in cognitive science, you are going to have a background to get into a psychology grad program, a linguistics grad program, a computer science grad program [and more]. It’s a good pre-med major too,” Peterson said. “It prepares you not only for different majors but it gives you all of these extra skills that set you apart. I think it opens a lot of doors.”

Peterson currently works in two labs, and he said his unique major and varied skill set is the reason he had the opportunity to work in them as they required both psychology and computer science knowledge.

“Psychology majors don’t have [a] computer science background so the cognitive science major gave me the unique ability to go and do research there on that level,” Peterson said. “Both of the labs were made possible by the multidisciplinary nature of the major. It’s one of the only majors that ties in the theoretical and the empirical.”

If you are interested in majoring in cognitive science or joining the Cognitive Science Club, visit cogsci.ucdavis.edu or e-mail tansingh@ucdavis.edu.

DEVON BOHART can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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