Welcome back to our cogbites interview series, where we interview cognitive scientists by asking them a few questions about their interests in science and what keeps them engaged both in and out of the lab.
As a reminder, you can learn a little about our team of contributors by reading their bios (either on our author page or at the bottom of each post), but this is a chance to get to know some early-career scientists even better. Our last interview was with Alexandria (Alex) Samson, a graduate student at the University of Toronto in their Psychology Graduate Program specializing in Perception, Cognition, and Cognitive Neuroscience.
This week we interview Caitlyn Finton. Caitlyn recently graduated with her PhD from Cornell University – her thesis defense was in November 2021! (Go Dr. Finton!) Caitlyn contributed to cogbites for two years. You can read her engaging cogbites posts, mostly focused on animal cognition, here. She also recently had her first paid article published in Discover Magazine!
Caitlyn’s degree is in Psychology with a concentration in Evolutionary and Behavioral Neuroscience. Her supervisor was Dr. Alex Ophir. While in graduate school, Caitlyn studied the neurobiology of social behavior. She focused on prairie voles and looked at how memory contributed to their monogamous mating tactic. Before graduate school, Caitlyn received a B.S. in Biology with a concentration in Animal Behavior from Indiana University. Now, Caitlyn is works as a fulltime science communicator at Harvard University under Dr. Mahzarin Banaji.
Here’s our interview with Caitlyn:
Why did you decide to pursue cognitive science?
I was always someone who loved animals. As I went through undergrad, I also realized that I also really liked understanding how things worked. Animals were cool, but I wanted to know why they did what they did. Because I was interested in this connection between mechanisms and behavior, I started specifically studying neurobiology and animal behavior. This gave me the best of both worlds: I could study animals and try to figure out why they did certain behaviors. I think it’s so fascinating to understand what causes both people and animals to behave in certain ways.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently moving out of a research-focused career and into science communication. I am working with Dr. Mahzarin Banaji on her project, Outsmarting Human Minds. This project explores the hidden blindspots of our mind that can lead to things like implicit bias. By knowing the science behind implicit bias, we are better able to counteract it. I am currently a content creator and write new material to be added to the site.
What’s the most important concept in cognitive science?
I think one of the most important concepts in cognitive science and neuroscience is the idea that brain regions are connected. For a long time, neuroscience segmented brain regions into certain tasks. The hippocampus is important for memory. The amygdala is important for emotion. But the more we learn about the brain, the more we know this way of thinking about it is false. Sure, the hippocampus is really important for memory. But it also takes in information from all sorts of other brain regions (like the amygdala!) in order to make memory happen. By segmenting the brain, we miss out on fully understanding how the brain works. I think that as more and more people look at the brain in a holistic view, our understanding of it will deepen immensely.
For a related cogbite on this topic, check out Ava Ma de Sousa’s post, “Are specific areas in the brain responsible for specific thoughts and behaviors?”
What sparked your interest in science communication and science outreach?
I always liked science. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I realized I liked communicating science more than doing it myself. Sure, research was fun, but I felt so much more fulfilled talking and teaching others about my own research. So, I started looking for opportunities to interact with people and teach them cool science things. I volunteered at the local science museum and started doing some freelance science writing in my spare time. I found that I really enjoyed the writing part of science communication, so I focused on that and just kept writing!
As a current science communicator, do you have any advice for scientists who wish to transition to science writing?
My number one piece of advice is to start building your portfolio! When pitching ideas to magazines and websites, you usually want to send along some of your pieces so editors can see your writing. It’s in your best interest to start getting your portfolio together as soon as you can, so you can jump on opportunities when they come up.
I found the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) and NPR Scicommers both to be really helpful in finding those early opportunities.
NASW is $30 for a student membership and has a mentorship program over the summer where you are paired with a professional journalist. They help you write a piece and it gets published in the student newsroom. That’s how I wrote my “Rat moms need a break” piece.
NPR Scicommers (they’re at Boston University now) is a group of science communicators. I found them super helpful for finding internships and opportunities — it’s where I discovered the job listing for the Behavioral Scientist, and I was able to publish a few pieces with them!
Writing for blogs (your own personal one or blogs like cogbites) are also good places to start building up your portfolio. For general science writing advice, I found The Open Notebook really helpful. They have a bunch of articles about getting started in science journalism!
Is there anything else you want us to know about you?
I highly recommend everyone to have some hobbies! I’m so much more productive when I take time out of the day to relax and do something non-work related. I play in a curling league once a week during the winter. I read a lot of fantasy books and play video games and board games. I also cross stitch – I find it really meditative to make the stitches while listening to a podcast. Finally, I blog once a week on my website and just talk about a cool animal!