Whenever I talk about what I’m studying here at Syracuse, I often get puzzled looks from people. “So… what do you want to actually do with that?” is a pretty common follow up question. My answer, “Software Engineering with a focus on Artificial Intelligence, most likely machine learning or artificial neural networks”, doesn’t seem to really interest most. But I think the answer to a different question, people would find a little more interesting: “How did you end up here?”.
Back in high school things were very different for me (as they were for most, I’m sure). I had long colored hair, played in orchestra (as well as a punk band), and knew absolutely nothing about code. I was, however, fascinated with humans; the way people interacted with one another, the way personalities changed in different environments, and most of all what was happening behind the scenes that drove people. I wanted to understand what was happening on a biological level when I would listen to a song in the morning and consequently have it stuck in my head the rest of the day. I wondered why certain study techniques would actually help me remember information better than others. As soon as I was able to take the AP Psychology course my school offered, I added it to my schedule. Mr. York, our awesome Psychology teacher, soon taught the class the basics of cognition – thought processing, memory, etc. – and I was certain that I had found my future education and career in Cognitive Psychology. I applied for colleges and selected Psychology as my major, knowing that I eventually wanted to get my PhD in Cognitive Psych and essentially research and be a part of Academia for the rest of my life.
Through chaos of the admission process I found myself accepting a spot at Syracuse University as a part of the graduating class of 2016 (Go Orange!). I moved 2,500 miles and joined the Psychology in Action learning community. I met with a peer and academic advisor, expressed my passion for Human Cognition and research, and found myself on the path for the research-oriented Bachelor of Science Psychology degree. With all of the AP credit I came to college with, I had the option of adding a second major or graduating a year early. Naturally, I couldn’t see the harm in picking up a second major. If anything it would help me stand out as a candidate for jobs, graduate school, research opportunities, etc. After giving it some thought, I concluded that Computer Science was easily the best option. I had always been good with math and problem solving, I had a better hold on computers and technology than a lot of my peers, and I knew that if things didn’t work out with Psychology, there would be better opportunities for me if I knew how to program. Most of all, what better way to understand the networks and underlying systems of the brain, than to apply concrete, mathematic models to them?
I began taking my Computer Science courses alongside working in a Behavioral Neuroscience lab sophomore year. This was really the first time in my life that I had ever programmed. Freshman year I had an interest in learning how to build websites and learned very basic HTML and CSS, but that was nothing compared to the data structures and algorithms I began to learn. I struggled at first, some of the logic and debugging really frustrating me. Alas, I programmed my way through my first few classes and began to see the potential for the tools that I had in front of me. I could finally begin to make sense of the world around me in concrete ways. I found myself losing interest in the things I was learning in my Psychology courses. The topics began to feel a little repetitive, and I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of applying generalizing theories to all (or most) human individuals. I realized that I had always been curious about the finite interactions happening at the neural level – the details.
The end of sophomore year also threw another curve ball at me. I had been accepted into an immersion program through the iSchool called EntreTech NYC. For a week in May, I would be able to get an up close and personal look at large companies as well as startups in the fast growing tech scene taking place in New York City. Always dreaming of a future in New York City and seeing this as an opportunity to make important connections, I went on the trip having no idea what I was about to embark on. Through a near sleepless week, I was exposed to the intense business revolution happening down in the “the city”. I was exposed to various stories (the founder of Constant Contact literally going from rags to riches) and ways that these companies would change the world. After quite the overwhelming week, I knew that I no longer had an interest in psychological research within academia. I now felt as though literally anything was possible with an ability to write robust code and a drive to never quit. I could research ways to provide a pleasing and intuitive User Experience. I could analyze user behavior using big data. I could model software to learn like humans. I could write software to analyze and map brains, or handle Human Computer Interaction. Whatever it was, I could do it with a computer – and the best part was that I was allowed to incorporate my interest of how humans worked.
The 2 years since have been quite interesting for me. I picked up a job working as a web developer for my university (Spiders), I interned with Makerbot last summer, I narrowed down just what I want to do with software, and I’ve added a third major. The decision for adding Neuroscience as my third major was not difficult. The Computer Science requirements were set for me such that I was going to graduate a semester late already, and adding the Neuroscience ILM at this point would have only required that I take 3-4 more classes. Above all else, I would now truly be getting a more detailed look at what was happening within certain systems in the brain. And while I’m not entirely thrilled that I have to stay in school for an extra year, I figure that this is a chance that I just can’t pass up.
The way that I see it, college is a very brief but important period of discovery. You’re given ample opportunity to learn by discovering much about yourself and the world around you. So why not take advantage of all of the opportunities and resources I have for a little bit longer? Why not take on 3 majors and explore interests that most would not see any connections between? When attempting to grow and learn, it is important to ask yourself, “why not”?