Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Joe Toscano

toscanoName: Joe Toscano

Occupation: Postdoctoral Fellow

Education (UR and additional): Ph.D. (2011), Psychology—Cognition and Perception, University of Iowa; B.S. Brain & Cognitive Sciences (2005), University of Rochester

Current city/state/country of residence: Champaign, IL

Current Community activities: Organizer for the Chambana Science Café, a science outreach group in Champaign-Urbana, IL.


When and how did you choose your major(s)?

I chose to major in BCS during my sophomore year. I had initially considered several other majors, but as I learned more about the field, I realized I was really interested in cognitive science and wanted to pursue a career in research. I also started working in a lab in the BCS Department (Prof. Mike Tanenhaus’ lab) around the same time. Being part of the research process also helped me decide that I wanted to major in BCS. 

Who were your mentors while you were on campus?  Have you continued those relationships?

I worked primarily with Prof. Mike Tanenhaus and also with Prof. Dick Aslin. I continued those relationships after graduating, and this led to a publication with Dick and my PhD advisor, Prof. Bob McMurray. Bob had a been a grad student at UR working with Mike and Dick.

What did you do immediately after graduation?  How did you decide to take this path?

Immediately after graduation, I started the PhD program in Cognition and Perception in the Psychology Dept. at the University of Iowa. At Iowa, I was able to continue several research projects I had been working on as an undergraduate. Part of the reason I went to Iowa, in particular, is that they have a very good PhD program in cognitive psychology. It also allowed me to work with Prof. Bob McMurray, who became my PhD advisor when I went there. Choosing your advisor is one of the most important decisions (if not the most important decision) you make when choosing a PhD program. You’ll be working with this person for 5-6 years, so it’s important to know that you work well together and that you’re interested in the research you’ll be doing.

What do you do now and why did you choose this career?

I’m currently a Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I work at the Beckman Institute, which is an interdisciplinary science and engineering research center. Given the interdisciplinary nature of BCS, this is a particularly good postdoc for me, and I work with faculty and students from a number of different fields. As a postdoc, I’m able to focus exclusively on research (e.g., running experiments, analyzing data, writing papers, writing grants).

What skills, tools, or knowledge from your major have been most useful to you since graduation?

The most useful skills from being a BCS major at UR came from the research experience I gained while working in a lab. That experience was incredibly helpful for me when starting grad school. I also gained critical thinking and writing skills. Those are tools that aren’t necessarily specific to the major, but they are both extremely important (you do a lot of writing as a scientist!).