Life in the Lab: A Student Experience

by Ekaterina Stepanova - Cognitive Science Major

My name is Katerina and I graduated in the Fall 2014 from the best program imaginable: Cognitive Science! Just think about it—we get a chance to discover what processes happen in the human brain, how our minds work and how they interact with the world. What could be more fascinating than that?

I was always intrigued by the mysteries of human cognition, and for many years was on a quest to find a program in which I could incorporate this field with my many other interests. After trying out the paths of biology and computer science back home in Russia, I realized that I didn’t want to limit myself to just one approach to tackling the puzzles of the mind in it’s full beauty and complexity. It was then that I discovered the existence of the secret field of Cognitive Science! I enthusiastically packed my bags and flew across the world to start on my adventurous path towards my dream.

Someone told me that I should try to apply for a volunteering research assistant position at the Cognitive Science Lab, even before I transferred to SFU. I don’t remember who that person was but I probably owe them all of my best times at SFU, along with many of the skills I have been lucky enough to acquire. Coming from a country with a totally different educational system, I did not even know that volunteering at labs was an option.

It took me a year to make my way into Dr. Mark Blair`s Cognitive Science Lab. When I was invited to join the lab, I felt very excited and honored to be offered a chance to become a part of that curious and intriguing process of scientific research. The Cognitive Science Lab became my second home—I was there almost everyday, staying late, and coming up on weekends. Once I even ran into a bear on my way to the bus stop after an especially long work night!

I had found a great space to work and study, and a social group of colleagues who shared my passion for science. The projects I was involved in gave me an external motivation to work and learn, and relished the opportunity to feel useful and productive. I acquired skills necessary for conducting research, running participants, analyzing data, coming up with hypotheses and designing experiments. I also learned how to use eye-trackers and how to program using languages such as MATLAB, Python, and BASH.

I am a tech-heavy person, so my experience in the lab was built around this. However, there is always work in the lab for people with all kinds of interests and talents, as long as they have a passion for science. I have been working on Starcraft projects and on a Reinforcement Learning Model, describing eye-tracking data. My contribution to the Reinforcement Learning Model resulted in a paper that was sent to a Cognitive Science Conference which I attended along with my colleagues last summer. My experience at the conference was enlightening, and fueled my desire to be involved in Cognitive Science research.

After working in the Cognitive Science Lab for a year, I was able to refine my intuition about what I would like to do with my life. Though I enjoy the tedious but very rewarding process of the scientific method, I have realized that I don’t want to pursue an academic career and become a professor at a university doing basic research. Instead, I want to apply scientific knowledge in a fast-paced environment where I can develop technologies that help people.

With that goal in mind, I knew that I needed to build some additional skills with modern technology, gadgets, and designs. After talking about my goals and concerns to our program manager, Shamina Senaratne, I made a plan to approach a few professors in the Interactive Art and Technology department, who are associate faculty members of the Cognitive Science program. After a couple months of emails and meetings, I was invited to become an intern in Dr. Bernhard Riecke’s iSpace Lab. I did my honors project in this lab, and am still working on some of it’s extensions.

I have recently begun to fill out applications for graduate school, and my involvement in the labs at SFU has been integral to the process—I now have lots of relevant experience to mention on my resume, and was able to pinpoint what I am interested in. Crafting my statement of purpose would have been much harder to do without the valuable advice of my supervisors, who were also kind enough to provide me with reference letters.  

Being involved with research also helped me to do better in my courses, as having a taste of working on real world projects gave the lecture material a more tangible application. Doing course assignments and studying for exams taught me things that helped to tackle problems in the lab, so the learning was very complementary!

It took passion, patience, and persistence for me to get into the labs I wanted to be a part of, but the reward was huge. Working in university labs can be challenging and demanding, but it’s one of the best ways to learn while doing something great not just for your grades, but for the scientific world!