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Finding the Right Fit: Psychology Graduate Student Discovers Her Calling in Cognitive Development

image of student Nicole Wen always knew she wanted to work with children, but she wasn’t quite sure where that might lead. After exploring various career paths, she switched her major to psychology and discovered a newfound passion in cognitive development.

With some help from her mentors, Wen landed a job in Dr. Cristine Legare’s Cognition, Culture and Development Lab. While transcribing and coding data alongside a leading developmental psychologist, she realized that she finally found her niche.

“I’ve always wanted to understand why children learn things in a certain way, and how their environment and culture play into who they become,” says Wen, a psychology graduate student. “I didn’t realize I could have a career doing this line of research and that I could study this for the rest of my life.”

From local preschools to island villages in the South Pacific, Wen and Legare have traveled far and wide to explore how children learn across cultures. The exciting aspect of her work, she says, is exploring uncharted territories in the field of cognitive development.

“There’s a lot of literature about children’s cognition and parenting practices in Western populations,” Wen adds. “But there isn’t a lot of diversity with the populations that are being studied. You can’t just apply this research to a global population because you would be using such a narrow lens to answer your questions.”

While talking about her research—and her plans to become a professor—it’s clear that Wen has found her true calling. She’s thankful for the mentors who helped her find her path and is now paying it forward by mentoring undergraduates in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate Internship Program (IE). Housed in the DDCE and the Moody College of Communication, the IE program helps undergraduates learn about graduate school and chart out their career paths through mentoring, internships and advising.

“What’s great about IE is that it gives students a nice little preview into graduate school, and they get to see if it’s the right fit for them early in their college career,” Wen says. “They get an in-depth understanding of what it means to be a graduate student, and they get to figure out what it is they really want to do—or just as important—what they don’t want to do.”

UT alumna Dr. JoyLynn Reed helped shape the IE program when it began in the Graduate School Professional Development Program in the 1990s.

Now with a $1,000 JoyLynn Hailey Reed Graduate Student Achievement Award, Wen can start planning her next research expedition. The award is made possible by a $25,000 endowment by Carol and Jim Hailey. This generous gift provides funding to graduate students who are exemplary mentors in the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship program.

“This grant is a huge help since I do a lot of conference traveling to talk about my research, which is very important during this stage in my career,” Wen adds. “Now I can worry less about how to fund my next trip and focus more on my research.”

In spring 2018, Wen will wrap up her graduate studies here at UT Austin and plans to pursue a long and exciting career in the world of academia. Looking back at her roundabout career path, she has no regrets about the detours she took along the way.

“I’m glad that I pursued those paths because I had to figure out what wasn’t for me,” Wen says. “People get set on these paths—undergrads especially—because they don’t know their options, or their parents pressured them into a certain career. My advice to them is to go job shadow for a day. If you don’t like the day-to-day work, it’s better to figure that out now.”