Spotlight on Natural Sciences Alumni: Katie McEldoon

mceldoonName: Katie McEldoon

Occupation: Cognitive Education Researcher

Education (UR and additional): B.A. & Take Five, University of Rochester, 2006; M.S. & Ph.D., Vanderbilt University, 2011, 2013; Post-Doctoral Researcher, Arizona State University.

Current city/state/country of residence: Nashville, TN & Phoenix, AZ

Current Community activities: Nashville Scene Alternative Weekly Music and Arts silent contributing partner

 Why did you choose to attend the University of Rochester?

When I visited campus, I could sense that everyone here was really excited about learning and very dedicated, but still could have fun! This was really important to me, and sure enough I became friends with amazing people who still inspire me to this day to work harder and achieve more (oh yeah, and have fun!). For me, the combination of a high quality research university with a small liberal-arts feel, plus an amazing music program (I play french horn) was too good to pass up!

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

I originally thought I was going to be a biology major (like everyone else, right?). The summer before freshman year I was flipping through the course catalog and found Brain and Cognitive Sciences. It had the mechanistic and empirical foundations that was appealing about biology, but also linked them to human behavior and thought processes. How cool! I was sold from that moment, and when I was in BCS 110, I just knew this was the right choice for me!

What resources did you use on campus that you would recommend current students use?

The career center. I remember being there all the time as I was getting my first job after school. I got an offer, and I have vivid memories of the director Burt Nadler basically shouting at me to negotiate a higher salary, ha! I was nervous but I followed his advice, and viola, higher salary! Also, I regret not going to the counseling center. College is tough and if you’re having a rough time, there is no shame in talking to someone about it. They are there to help. Since you’re BCS majors you should know that psychological issues are not character flaws!

What activities were you involved in as a student and what did you gain from them?

I was involved in wind symphony and symphony orchestra, working in the BCS labs, and was a campus tour guide. Playing French horn instilled the value of working consistently towards a long term goal, and being able to tangibly observe and enjoy all the benefits of my hard work. That certainly comes into play all the time in the work world, particularly academia (where the pace is a lot slower than in business). But I think being a tour guide was the most useful activity. Not only did I learn how to interact with people in both a warm and professional way, I got very comfortable with public speaking and being a leader. These skills have come into play countless times in my professional life so far. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve thought “I’m so glad I was a tour guide! This is so much easier for me now because of that!”.

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

Formally, Dr. Aslin was my advisor, but in reality the graduate students in the department were my real mentors. Dr. Sarah Creel (Ph.D. UR, 2005), who is now an associate professor at UC San Diego was my lab mentor, and eventually became a close friend. She taught me the ropes of research, and still to this day provides guidance, perspectives, and support through my own research career. You might think the grad students are just your TAs, but reach out to them! They can be great resources, especially if you are thinking about graduate school yourself. 

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

I got a position working as a research assistant in a cognitive development lab at the University of Pennsylvania. The aforementioned Dr. Sarah Creel was a post-doc there at the time and tipped me off about the opening (befriend your TAs!). By then I knew I wanted to go into applied cognitive science research, but I didn’t know exactly how or what. By taking a job as a research assistant I could see what the research world was all about, gain relevant skills, and spend some time honing down my interests and potential graduate programs. Turns out it was one of the best decisions I ever made!

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

Right now I am finishing up my dissertation and am about to start a post-doctoral research scientist position at Arizona State Univeristy. I use theories of learning and memory from the cognitive science world and apply them to educational settings, and do ‘experiments’ in classrooms to see if different teaching techniques actually improve learning. For example, my masters thesis was about how having elementary students explain their reasoning while they solved challenging math problems increased both their ability to solve similar problems and more difficult ones, and were able to retain their skills for longer compared to students who did not explain. In Arizona I will be working on a project that teaches teachers how to incorporate cognitive science-approved instructional activities into their teaching, and we will see if the teachers use these techniques and if it has a positive impact on student learning.  I chose this path because as much as I love cognitive science, I wanted my career to have more of an explicit and positive impact on society. Since cognitive science is the science of learning and memory, why not use its theories and methods to tackle educational issues? I find the empirical foundations of cognitive science reliable and comforting, and the real-world impact of improving educational practices motivating and rewarding. I found a way to satisfy my inner empiricist and altruist at the same time!

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

Among other things, the professors are wonderful resources. You don’t realize how ‘science-famous’ they are until you get into that world yourself. When I mention to people that Dr. Aslin was my undergrad advisor, I get ooos and aaahs! Content knowledge-wise, I’d say that the BCS program provides are really strong foundational understanding of experimental methodology. As I went off and met people from other universities in cognitive science, I found myself knowing about experimental paradigms and imaging techniques that others didn’t. Beyond BCS classes, taking a computer programming class was incredibly useful. I promise, you will find yourself having to do light coding and programming way more often than you might think. Take a class or two now, you’ll be happy you did!

Where would you like to be in five years?

I would like to be a research associate at an educational research company that develops, implements, and tests out new instructional methods and materials, and evaluates their effectiveness. I want to work to bring cognitive science into real-world educational research and policy issues.

How you are still connected with the University?

I actually haven’t been back to campus (for shame!), but that’s only because life has taken me so far afield! I’m still connected to the university through my work with the admissions office and the cognitive science labs. I sometimes do prospective student interviewing as an alumna and attend local admissions events in my area. Through my work in the labs, I still see classmates, graduate students, and professors out at conferences. Oh, and although I’ve been living in Nashville Tenn., where Upstate New York is oh-so far away, I still proudly have my UR sticker on my car, making sure everyone knows that UR is awesome!

What is your fondest memory of the University?

Winter of my freshman year, a semi-spontaneous snowball fight broke out on the residential quad. My friends and I joined in on the fun. While goofing around and pummeling snowballs, I bumped into a very handsome guy. We nervously started talking; he was a neuroscience major, and we talked about the recent BCS/Neuro student council meeting that just happened. Well, not to get too gushy but it was love at first sight, and he asked me to be his girlfriend one week later on Valentine’s Day. Awwww!

What advice do you have for current students?

Take initiative. If you speak up, you can make it happen! This goes for something as little as asking that new person you want to be friends with to grab dinner at the dining hall, or cold-emailing professors at other universities near your hometown to ask if you can intern with them over the summer. It was incredibly eye-opening to me when I realized I can basically do anything if I just step up and make it happen.