Cogbites Interview Series: Cristina Zepeda

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 own 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 Dr. Caitlyn Finton, a science communicator at Harvard University working with Dr. Mahzarin Banaji.

Dr. Cristina Zepeda

This week we interview Dr. Cristina Zepeda. She is currently finishing up her postdoc position at Washington University in St. Louis working with Dr. Andrew Butler. In the fall, Cristina will start as an assistant professor in psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University. (Go Professor Zepeda!)

Cristina completed her Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology working with Dr. Timothy Nokes-Malach at the University of Pittsburgh. In a nutshell, Cristina’s research focuses on helping students navigate their educational trajectories. More specifically, she focuses on how students learn and regulate their learning, and how best to support students in acquiring new knowledge and applying that knowledge to other contexts.

Here’s our interview with Cristina:

Why did you decide to pursue cognitive science? 

Growing up I always enjoyed helping people learn. In elementary/middle school, I would go around helping classmates, in high school I TA’d for a math class, and in college I was a college peer advisor for Cal-SOAP. So, in retrospect, it seems natural to study how people learn, and how to support that learning with the goal of creating more equitable access to educational opportunities. However, that was not a clear path for me in the beginning. It wasn’t until I took a cognitive development and education course that I realized that I might be interested in cognitive science, and it really didn’t hit home that I could pursue a career in cognitive science until I participated in a postbaccalaureate fellowship program at the University of Pittsburgh, called Hot Metal Bridge.

I had no idea this career could be possible or how to really go about pursuing this type of career, so I am so grateful for the nudges that helped me get here and those that let me ask a bunch of questions about how to figure out this space. I think that’s partially why I really enjoy participating in communities or service activities that seek to broaden participation in cognitive science and science more broadly. For example, I created an informal Science of Learning Early Career Research Group to help navigate early-career life with peers, and I am running as a member at large candidate for APA Div. 3 to advocate for initiatives and strategies to provide additional support to researchers early in their careers and to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in cognitive science.

Hot Metal Bridge sounds like an awesome program! Can you tell us more about it?

In this program I learned a lot about myself, a new city, and my career interests. For example, I learned what a real coat and boots entail, but more seriously, I refined my research interests thanks to working alongside faculty and graduate student mentors and taking graduate level courses. Throughout the program you also receive feedback (and now guidance) on applying to graduate programs. I enjoyed my experience so much that I became a graduate mentor for the program and then the assistant director where I developed a syllabus and created a more formalized course. I am forever grateful for this program – from what it taught me, from what it allowed me to give back, and from the community it created.

As a side note: In the program you are assigned a faculty mentor and usually two graduate student mentors. You conduct a research project across the year and receive support in applying to graduate school and learning skills that are helpful for graduate school. You also have social events and get to know those in your cohort. At the end of the year, you give a presentation on your project. I should also mention that you get a nice stipend to support you across the two semesters. If you’re interested, applications are usually open in February!

What research projects are you currently working on?

I have a few ongoing projects, but the one I am really excited about at the moment is looking at how we can motivate students to use cognitive learning strategies that produce desirable difficulties (the outcome is desirable as it benefits learning, but the process is difficult and often viewed as costly in the moment).

For example, in a recent(ish) publication (Zepeda et al., 2020), we discuss how to adapt social psychological interventions to support students in using challenging learning/study strategies like retrieval practice. Taking a step back, in a manuscript that is currently under review we investigate which types of motivational strategies students use and their relation to course performance to pinpoint which types of motivational interventions might be most productive. Importantly, we are doing so with a large diverse sample of students to understand when and for whom do these strategies benefit course performance so that we can be more equitable in our approaches to supporting students and their learning trajectories.  

What’s the most important concept in cognitive science?

Oh gosh, this one is hard! An oldie but goodie is knowledge transfer – applying acquired knowledge and skills to new or novel learning and problem-solving situations. The mechanisms and conditions in which it operates are complex and fascinating. Importantly, knowledge transfer has implications across several applied settings. In my case, I focus on educational settings by investigating how students apply their knowledge as well as how they apply their skills and motivations across contexts. For example, can learning about metacognition through direct instruction and practice with a particular set of problems be applied to other aspects of student learning (e.g., different types of problems, a novel learning activity, their motivation)?  See Zepeda et al., 2015 for more information.  It is a challenging puzzle but an enjoyable one that is worth the pursuit.

Is there anything else you want us to know about you?

Cristina riding a slide with her three-year-old son.

As a mom, my hobbies have definitely shifted over the years and my current “hobbies” are usually subsumed with everything a three-year-old loves to do. If it isn’t freezing, we are out exploring. It has been a nice change of pace and has sparked a whole host of new ideas as I watch a little novice explore and test out his environment – usually making me laugh along the way.

Do you have any job market advice – particularly for other academic mamas* out there?

Just remember that you are stronger than you think you are. The job market is tough and so is being a new mom, so try to give yourself some grace and remember to advocate for yourself and your needs. I am very excited to go to Vanderbilt where I have been fully supported as a working mom – in my startup they gave me a spot in daycare AND a free year of tuition, which gave me all the mama feels and provided such a relief in many ways. It is incredibly energizing to be in a place that values you, your family, and your work.