Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science: Dr. Ö. Nilay Yalçin

February 11, 2024

School of Interactive Arts & Technology assistant professor Ö. Nilay Yalçin’s interest in science, and specifically cognitive science, began with an increasing curiosity to understand human cognition and the potential of artificial intelligence to model the human mind.

Cognitive science is a unique interdisciplinary field and Yalçin was intrigued by the interplay of the different disciplines, such as psychology, philosophy, linguistics, neuroscience, and AI, to tackle one very complex problem at different angles.

“I loved what my mentors and other researchers in cognitive science and AI created in their work, the excitement they had when they talked about their research and I wanted to be a part of it.”

Yalçin’s journey into the cognitive science field was not always linear.

Yalçin completed her bachelor’s degree in Management Engineering at Istanbul Technical University and discovered that the courses she excelled in were related to math, statistics, and programming.

Near the end of her undergraduate degree, Yalçin had the opportunity to work on a graduation project where she was encouraged to propose her own project idea for a year-long individual project. While exploring potential topics, Yalçin found herself developing an interest in human-computer interaction and began analyzing educational platforms and their perception by users. Through this, her project took shape.

“During this project, I realized how much I enjoyed research: forming hypotheses, collecting data, evaluating, and brainstorming,” says Yalçin. “It was also during this time that I discovered cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and how technology affects human behaviour.”

Ö. Nilay Yalçin presenting at a conference at Cambridge University

Yalçin enjoyed the work so much and was so interested in the subject that she found herself going above and beyond the project requirements.

After graduating, Yalçin was accepted to the Middle East Technical University’s Master of Science program and was further introduced to AI. During this time, Yalçin decided to pursue a career in academia.

In 2019, she completed her PhD in AI-powered interactive agents at the School of Interactive Arts & Technology. Through this work, Yalçin wanted to build AI-powered interactive agents to both understand the human mind and to create technologies for positive societal impact.

To other women and girls pursuing the sciences, or indeed any field, Yalçin says “your voice, ideas, and contributions are invaluable!” Find your passion, she says, and follow it. “No one has the same journey, embrace your path and don't be afraid of breaking the barriers/assumptions of others. Seek mentors and allies, connect with supportive communities, and believe in your abilities to be the best at what you do.”