In May 2019 I received a PhD in Cognitive Science from Brown University where I was mentored by Profs. Jim Morgan and Dave Sobel. I have spent my last year of graduate school at UC Berkeley as a visiting researcher and lecturer, where I worked with Profs. Mahesh Srinivasan and Fei Xu. I taught undergraduate courses "CogSci 131 Computational Models of Cognition" and "Psych 142 Applied Early Developmental Psychology". Another highlight of my time at UC Berkeley was taking part in the Making Contact 2019 conference, organized by the SETI institute (which inspired me to take a training and become a telescope observer!).
For the past several years, I've been working towards becoming a cognitive scientist. So far, this journey has been marked by the joy of inspiration and by ever-growing scientific curiosity. Although I have been captivated by questions related to language and mind for a long time, I did not have the opportunity to pursue this passion until coming to MIT. Growing up in post-Soviet Russia and having witnessed two major financial meltdowns in my homeland, I had little confidence in my financial future and also felt compelled to break the curse of unemployment in my family. As I was pursuing my degree in finance, a chain of fortuitous events brought me to the MIT Language Lab, where I had the chance to venture into cognitive science by working with Ted Gibson and Ev Fedorenko. Ted and Ev allowed me to become a part of a fascinating cross-linguistic investigation of syntactic patterns in gesture. This lucky encounter convinced me to reconsider my career and become a scientist.
After MIT, I worked as a consultant in New York while building up experience to apply for graduate programs in cognitive science (and trying to pay off my student loan). Good fortune struck when Athena Vouloumanos at New York University allowed me to work in her lab on weekends and mentored me for the following year
(I eventually quit my consulting job to focus on research). Athena's work, which looks into the origins of the human ability to communicate, influenced my thinking and directed me towards asking questions about the origins of language and, particularly, word learning. Why are infants sensitive to word input? How do they come to realize that words carry meaning?
Subsequently, I started my doctoral studies at Brown University where I began to develop my own research agenda, mentored by Jim Morgan and Dave Sobel. Jim Morgan's work focuses on the early development of human language, and Dave Sobel studies causal learning and social cognition. Seeing potential synergy in combining the insight from these two fields, I decided to focus on the area that fits between my advisors' lines of work – social aspects of word learning.
Since word knowledge is primarily used for communication and can be viewed as inherently social, I wanted to understand how social interactions and social characteristics of speakers shape children's word learning. This question motivated my dissertation work, in which I investigate two related questions: (1) how socially contingent interactions via digital media influence infants' word learning; (2) how speakers' reliability influences infants' and older children's word learning.
During my time at Brown, I was also mentored by Joe Austerweil (now at the University of Wisconsin–Madison). Joe encouraged me to develop a class project into an empirical investigation and taught me computational techniques to bring that project to life. In this line of work, I am exploring how people with autism spectrum disorders and neurotypical individuals categorize information. This project was selected to be funded by the Peter D. Eimas Award at Brown University and by the Organization for Autism Research.
In my most recent work (at UC Berkeley) I am investigating the relation between multilingualism and the way conceptual knowledge is stored in the human mind. I am also researching the emergence of abstract verbal reference (reference to entities or events that are not currently present or visible) in infancy.
Being a cognitive scientist and having supportive mentors who cultivated my curiosity and scientific exploration has been the most fulfilling job I've ever had. I intend to pursue my passion for research and exploration of the human mind in my future career. I hope that my work will contribute to a better understanding of cognitive development in the context of modern technology and challenges that it presents to humanity.