Name: Pin-Chun Chen
Year in program, program: Fourth-year cognitive sciences graduate recipient
Award: Outstanding Scholar Award
Hometown: Kaohsiung, Taiwan
Undergraduate Institution: National ChengChi University (Taipei, Taiwan), double-majored in psychology and education

What drew you to the field of cognitive science – and your interest in sleep research - and UCI?

I view becoming a sleep researcher not just as my vocation, but as my passion in life. I discovered my passion for sleep research as a sophomore, during which I worked with Dr. Chien-Ming Yang’s at National Chengchi University, where I was exposed to a diverse range of fascinating topics in insomnia. When I interacted with participants, I felt a special connection with the elderly patients who experienced cognitive decline. When I worked with older adults who suffered from dementia and insomnia, I felt disappointed that the most common insomnia treatment in clinical practices is hypnotics, which is controversial and being viewed as a risk factor of dementia. Thinking about the suffering the patients and their families must be going through, I wanted to do as much as I could to prevent or mitigate the suffering.

I then started to pursue my Ph.D. study with Sara Mednick, a sleep and memory expert at UCI, to understand how autonomic and central nervous system factors interact to produce regulatory effects on sleep-dependent health and memory enhancement. My research aims to develop non-invasive interventional tools that target sleep and counteract age-related cognitive declines. I read about Mednick’s research work and wanted to work with her.

In addition, UCI offers a joint program - the Ph.D. in cognitive sciences/M.S. in statistics – which is very appealing to me as it gives in-depth training in statistics which helps with my research work and also gives me options for potentially working in industry.

Tell us more about your research, why it matters, and what interests you most about the study of sleep.

My research broadly entails the processes during sleep that are important for health and cognitive functions. My work investigates how autonomic and central nervous system factors interact to produce regulatory effects on sleep-dependent health and memory enhancement. By harnessing physiological biomarkers during sleep, my work aims to develop interventional tools (i.e. brain stimulation, pharmacology) that target at sleep and counteract age-related cognitive declines. 

By understanding how sleep facilitates memory in healthy and aging brains, we can ultimately use sleep for early detection or intervention targeting neurodegenerative diseases, before it’s too late to make a change.

I’m passionate about everything related to sleep. What’s most fascinating is that we can actually utilize sleep as an intervention for cognitive enhancement and prevent cognitive decline. It’s very interesting to me how different types of memories can be facilitated during sleep.

Do you have any publications or studies under review?

In a recent paper that is under review, I found that sleep might be a competitive arena where different cognitive domains fight for limited restorative resources. When we pharmacologically target at one sleep feature and improve one type of memory (long-term memory), we see a suppression in another sleep feature and decrease the sleep-dependent improvement of another type of memory (working memory). This study suggests that sleep is a limited resource, in which different cognitive processing alternate during sleep to optimize their enhancement.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced getting to where you are today? And what major milestones have you marked along the way?

Being an international student, a first-gen graduate student, and a non-native English speaker are the biggest challenges to me. Applying for my Ph.D. during my fourth year of undergraduate time and luckily getting accepted and moving all the way to the states without knowing anyone here are some big milestones. I also got my master’s in statistics while pursuing my Ph.D. in cognitive sciences. I have never taken any statistics or math courses during my undergraduate time except for introductory level. It was very challenging for me but I eventually made it.

In addition to the Outstanding Scholarship Award, what other grants and/or awards have you received while in pursuit of your graduate degree?

Renée Harwick Advanced Graduate Student Award, Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, University of California, Irvine, 2021 
Cascade Mentoring Fellowship, Graduate Division, University of California, Irvine, 2021
UCI Grad Slam Semi-Finalist, Graduate Division, University of California, Irvine, 2021
DTEI Graduate Fellowship, Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation, University of California, Irvine, 2020
NVIDIA GPU Grant, NVIDIA Corporation, 2017 (wrote a machine learning research proposal and won a free GPU for my lab)
Government Scholarship to Study Abroad, Ministry of Education, Taiwan, 2017–2019 (only 2 recipients in the field of psychology per year)

Any other activities you’ve been involved with?

I enjoy training and mentoring next generation scientists. I encouraged my undergraduate research assistants to work on individual projects and presentations. I thrived helping them with graduate school applications and giving them all my supports.

Who has played an important role in your life thus far and why?

Every female scientist is my role model. It’s definitely not easy for women to become scientists. The gender stereotypes and male-dominated cultures still exist in academia, even nowadays. I hope that there will be more and more female scientists being role models for the next generation of girls.

What do you plan to do after finishing your graduate degree?

I’m actively seeking postdoc positions. I would love to continue my research in the field of sleep and memory after I graduate from UCI.

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