Cognitive Science program helps students find their passions and unlock their full potential

December 8, 2023

Like many students, Michelle Tran entered college unsure of what path she wanted to pursue academically and professionally. When she learned more about the Cognitive Science Program at Berkeley Social Sciences, she realized it would be the perfect opportunity to explore a variety of interdisciplinary fields. Now, as a third-year student at UC Berkeley, Michelle’s journey with Cognitive Science has nurtured her passion for information science, human-computer interaction and human-centered design technology.

With its blend of neuroscience, computer science and sociology, along with many other disciplines, the Cognitive Science major has exposed Michelle to a diverse set of subjects that she would have never anticipated studying. “I’ve been able to learn how the brain and mind work from so many different perspectives that it’s helped me develop a skill of building empathy because you can think about a topic from all different disciplines," she said. "It also takes on a more humanistic perspective when building technology and social relationships.”

Within Cognitive Science, Michelle is specifically interested in how social psychology, technology and information influence how digital products are designed. She owes the start of her professional interests to the course “Virtual Communities and Social Media” with Edwin Lin, a lecturer in the Sociology Department, which focuses on how mediums and interfaces affect the way people think and process information. Her interests have since evolved into a passion for education technology and helping students learn better through accessible design practices. Her Cognitive Science studies have been instrumental in helping her navigate the EdTech space to understand how students learn from a neuro-psychological lens and ideate technically feasible solutions using computer science principles. Michelle hopes to use her Cognitive Science background and human-centered design focus to create more personalized learning spaces for students.

Outside of her classes, Michelle also researches information accessibility and dissemination at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. “It’s interesting how people interact with others and how information can be a mediator. Data visualization piqued my interest during the pandemic when there was lots of misinformation and biased graphs," she said.  "I wanted to help mitigate the bias within designing visualizations and focus on standardizing information through language.” Through her research, Michelle is working towards making data visualizations as objective as possible to the general public, incorporating her passion for accessibility, design and human-computer interaction.

Michelle credits Cognitive Science with not only helping her professional pursuits but also providing personal insight into better understanding herself. “On one level, Cognitive science is great for my career, but the reason why I ultimately wanted to pursue it is because I’m learning a lot about myself as an individual," she said. "I’m taking a class called the Neuropsychology of Happiness and we have to do happiness journals and meditation, which are evidence-based practices. I’ve learned a lot about myself and that’s the highlight of the Cognitive Science major for me. It’s helped me with self-improvement and how to be a happier person.” 

In her free time, Michelle is also a professional and creative photographer. She photographs both professional headshots and cinematic portraits, which allow her to channel her love for art and storytelling. “Each photo is like a still frame in cinema, and I’m able to tell a story in that singular photograph,” she said. Michelle also teaches the Decal course “Photography Principles” to introduce other students to the art and techniques of photography.

Through the Cognitive Science program at Berkeley Social Sciences, Michelle has been able to engage in a diverse set of experiences – academically, professionally and personally – far beyond her imagination when she first entered college. The major has not only equipped her with a foundation of knowledge but also ignited her passion for inclusive design and human-computer interaction. Michelle’s journey serves as a testament to how the Cognitive Science program’s unique blend of interdisciplinary studies and the diverse community of students can empower anyone to uncover their unique passions and unlock their full potential.

Michelle Tran is a third-year Cognitive Science and Disability Studies student at UC Berkeley. In her academic and professional journey, Michelle is most passionate about the intersection of cognition, design, and accessibility to democratize education and information access. At Berkeley, she helps conduct research for the School of Information, teaches a DeCal on Photography Principles, and leads the design team for BerkeleyTime.