Catalyst Program helps traditionally underserved students

November 7, 2022

Xanthia Lam, a senior student in the cognitive science program at UC Berkeley, was unsure of how she would afford some basic supplies for the coming semester. The Oakland-born daughter of two immigrant parents who have experienced homelessness, Lam had been thankful to receive some financial support throughout her undergraduate education, but even that support did not completely cover costs of living in the Bay Area.

“Even though the Cal Grant and the Pell Grant covered my tuition, it was not enough to cover basic needs like housing and food,” she said. “That’s why I was so grateful to receive the CogSci Career Catalyst stipend to support me during my summer internship this year.”

Xanthia Lam is one of five students who participated in the inaugural class of the CogSci Career Catalyst program, a new initiative supported by Cognitive Science alumnus Phillip Hyun, class of 2000. The program helps exceptional undergrad students to put their Cognitive Science (CogSci) degrees into practice during a hands-on internship, and awards them with stipends to supplement their internship funding.

“I want to help people, who graduate from areas that are often overlooked, become great professionals that will impact people and society through every industry,” said Hyun about the Catalyst program. He says his work in the world of software engineering and technology taught him to look beyond the technical skills of a job applicant.

Cognitive Science and other social sciences are critically important, providing human insights even in technical fields, Hyun said. “The humanities and social sciences are just as important in one’s education and character development, if not more, than their knowledge of coding and tech.”

The Catalyst program gives a traditionally underserved cohort of students the chance to forge an explicit link between cognitive science theory and application, says the director of the Cognitive Science program, Professor David Whitney. “It sets the stage for a transition to rewarding careers. The principles of cognitive science are fundamental and transferable to many diverse careers and career paths, and the Catalyst program reveals to students how broadly applicable their education can be.”

Lam says that her internship was not only a valuable networking and learning experience, but also a source for much-needed summer funding at a time when internships are both low-paying and extremely competitive. “The Catalyst program eased my mental stress over finances so I could focus on my studies. I didn’t have to worry about what I’d eat or where I’d stay during the summer and into fall. It also gave me the courage to push myself to apply to different internships even if they were unpaid because I knew I had the support of the program.”

Other students who participated in the program echoed this sense of relief. Liam Grunfeld interned at SciQuel, a nonprofit focused on science education. The CogSci Career Catalyst program was a huge help, he says.

“I was concerned about finding an internship and felt a bit restricted by my financial situation,” Grunfeld said. “The stipend allowed me to take the unpaid internship and gave me the opportunity to develop my skills in a lower-stakes environment.”

Angel Xu is a senior majoring in cognitive science and minoring in data science and education. The program supported her through an internship at Oracle as a UX researcher. “The stipend helped me navigate my dream career while saving money to support my life and visit my family,” Xu said.

Cognitive Science: A Unique Way of Studying the Human Mind

While cognitive science incorporates disciplines across the social and applied sciences, it’s not uncommon for graduating students of UC Berkeley’s Cognitive Science program to branch out into technology and STEM fields.

“Our students take courses in anthropology, biology, computer science, education, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, which makes them extremely versatile,” says Whitney. “They go on to bring their knowledge into the technology industry, in which the goals of the field – such as modeling human behavior, helping computers to learn, formalizing reasoning, and building effective educational environments – are critical to the success of companies.”

Hyun has no doubt that investing in CogSci students is a wise bet.

“Our grads have what it takes to succeed, not just in tech but also at the executive level,” he said. “To get there, you learn how to understand people who are all unique — what motivates them, how to create an open and diverse work culture, and how to help them work together. That’s something I learned in CogSci.” Hyun has founded several startups, including one of the largest esports companies in the world, Gen.G, which he co-founded with Kevin Chou ‘02. Hyun is in the company of many accomplished alumni of the CogSci program, whose careers range from biotech to companies such as Airbnb and Pixar. Other prominent alums include Elliot Cohen ‘05, co-founder of PillPack, and Patrick Lee ‘04, co-founder of Rotten Tomatoes.

Lam says that her internship experience with the Alameda County Public Health Department sealed her decision to pursue a master’s degree in health policy following graduation. Growing up with parents who are not only immigrants, but are also disabled, she experienced firsthand the barriers to accessing affordable quality health care, especially for non-native speakers.

“Translators are not always accessible and they don’t always convey the information properly,” she said.” But the main hurdle is the cost. “I witnessed my parents asking for financial aid and struggling to afford their co-pay and even life-saving medicine like insulin,” she explained. “We live in a society where there's a diversity of languages and communications styles, and our translators are not efficient enough. CogSci gave me the tools I need to learn about human cognition and to experience classes with so many different people from different disciplines. It gave me the confidence to go into the field of public health and help change things systemically.”

She is confident that with the training she received in CogSci and the support of the CogSci Career Catalyst program, she will be able to pursue her dream. “Being in CogSci, you can almost go into any field.”

Hyun says he’s inspired by the success of students like Lam and plans to support next year’s cohort. He also encourages others to support the Catalyst program. “UC Berkeley grads are resilient, hardworking problem-solvers,” he said. “If you give them a chance, they will succeed.”

If you would like to support UC Berkeley students through the CogSci Career Catalyst program, please contact Erik Lehto, Associate Director of Development, at (510) 609-5335 or

Xanthia Lam

Xanthia Lam, UC Berkeley student

Photo credit: Hagit Caspi