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Computing how humans think

By Christine Buckley, CLAS Today

At the end of his freshman year, undecided engineering student Jeff Rodny was trying to decide what to choose as a major. He knew that there were two fields he was interested in: programming and psychology.

So, naturally, he went to Wikipedia to see what he could find. To his surprise, he discovered a field that combined both of his interests.

Now, when asked to explain the basics of cognitive science, his major in CLAS, Rodny breaks into laughter, as if to say at once, “That’s a great question,” and, “What isn’t cognitive science?

“There are all different types of cognitive scientists,” he says, describing the field as a meld of psychology, philosophy, computer science and neuroscience, all focusing on the brain and how intelligent beings process information.

“We think we know a lot about the brain, but there’s so much we don’t know,” he says. “I want to be a part of that.”

Being “a fairly good programmer,” Rodny decided to pursue degrees in both cognitive science in CLAS and computer science and engineering in the School of Engineering. He started doing research with psychology associate professor Whitney Tabor at the end of his freshman year, where he learned the basics of how to model small groups of neurons.

Tabor also introduced him to the laboratory of psychology professor Letitia Naigles, where he began pursuing some different work. With Naigles, Rodny wrote a program that could be used to analyze the eye movements of infants viewing different objects in a preferential looking experiment. This attention data can help psychologists understand how children begin to learn at a young age, and are useful for recognizing pathologies, such as autism. Naigles used Rodny’s program to analyze data for a conference talk and still uses it regularly in her laboratory.

Rodny worked with Tabor on his senior thesis, which involved creating computer programs that simulate neural networks in the brain of a child. Rodny describes his work as similar to the video game “The Sims,” in which people have varying motivations for different actions. These motivations can be difficult to integrate into brain models.

“We made a fun neural network that has two or three urges,” he says, such as the need to eat, the need to have fun, and the need for exercise. His model network needed to be able to juggle these motivations and make appropriate decisions. Rodny and Tabor think it’s possible that this model of simple thinking could reveal brand-new motivations created by the program itself.

“Jeff has done a super job combining his interests in biology and engineering with important questions about how human beings think,” says Tabor. “He’s done excellent work on this project.”

Rodny says that he’s very happy he got out of the classroom and started talking to professors early on in his college career, which led to the beginning of his research endeavors during his freshman year.

“Research is just fun,” he says. “When I do research with a professor, it’s nothing like a lecture. You’re one-on-one, and both working together as peers. They’ll say, ‘Do you think this is a good idea?’ That’s what’s really cool about it.”

Rodny has been accepted to the University of California at Merced’s cognitive science PhD program, which he will begin in the fall. His ultimate goal is to become a professor and conduct his own research.

Although he is looking forward to Merced, the Manchester native says he will definitely miss New England and the fall. And he’ll miss his UConn experience, which he says was more diverse than he ever could have hoped.

“There are so many opportunities here,” he says. “I’m really glad I didn’t go to an engineering school, because I was able to take all these different kinds of classes here. In fact, I’m kind of upset that I didn’t take astronomy.”

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