Pictured above: Karen Arcos presents her research at the Associated Graduate Student Symposium.

Name: Karen Arcos
Graduate program: Cognitive Sciences Ph.D. with an emphasis in Chicano/Latino studies
Grew up in: Los Angeles, CA
Undergraduate institution: University of Southern California

What made you decide to pursue a Ph.D. in cognitive sciences – and why at UCI?

As a Latina who is completely blind, my unique experiences motivated my interest in how learning occurs internally. Growing up, I learned among sighted peers in slightly different ways. For example, when my peers hand wrote, I read and wrote in braille on a portable digital assistant using my fingers. When my peers accessed the computer with a mouse, I completed the same task using keyboard shortcuts and a screenreader, a program which reads the text aloud. I chose UCI because I went from hearing all these no’s from other schools to my now-advisor, professor Emily Grossman, saying, “Oh, I’ve never worked with blind people before, but your research sounds so interesting, let’s talk about it.” She was really enthusiastic from the get go, which is what I was looking for - supportive faculty. I feel I chose well given my committee members’ involvement.

What interests you most in your current field of study?

I'm most interested in how our cultures shape learning and memory. For example, through my involvement with the Loh Down on Science - a nationally-broadcast science radio show, I wrote a script about research in Canada finding that West Europeans pay more attention to pictures’ central details, while East Asians attend more to pictures’ background details. Understanding culture’s influence may help us problem-solve and appreciate learning. I am also interested in exploring how well people recall information from memory as compared to when using technology like internet to access information. Understanding more about technology's impact on learning and remembering may affect how we educate future generations.

What specific research projects did you work on while at UCI?

Overall, my doctoral research examined how blindness impacts memory abilities. Although those who are blind exhibit larger short-term memory (STM) capacity relative to the sighted, the extent to which this generalizes to nonverbal information and more complex memory tasks is unclear. One study focused on how your senses - or lack of them - impact your ability to remember information on a simple memory task. I questioned how visual, auditory, and tactile senses influence memory abilities in sighted and blind adults while also matching for socioeconomic status. When sighted and blind adults were presented with digits to remember in the same order as presented, sighted adults remembered MORE digits in order after seeing them than after hearing them. In contrast, blind adults remembered about the SAME number of digits whether they read them in braille or listened to them. Blind participants also remembered MORE digits than blindfolded sighted participants when each group heard them. Blind participants outperformed sighted ones when matched for socioeconomic status and in the full sample.

What implications does your research have for the general community?

My research has the potential to aid in designing more effective educational and rehabilitative interventions capitalizing on the increased capacity for verbal memory in blindness.

What publications have you had or are in progress?

    • Arcos, K., Jaeggi, S. M., & Grossman, E. D., Perks of blindness: Enhanced Verbal Memory Span in Blind over Sighted Adults.
    • Arcos, K., Harhen, N., Loiotile, R. E., & Bedny, M. Superior Verbal but not Nonverbal Memory in Congenital Blindness.

What grants or awards have you received while in pursuit of your graduate degree?

  • Awards:
    Grad Slam Finalist, March 2019 and February 2020, UCI
    Associated Graduate Student Research Symposium, April 2019, UCI
    First place of seven contestants for research TED talk presented to a non-scientific audience

What are your plans after you complete your Ph.D. this spring?

I am currently a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow researching the role of uncertainty in memory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. My long-term goal is to pursue science communication to explain science to the public either orally or in writing using my English and Spanish fluency. I'd like to motivate more underrepresented minorities to pursue fields in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM). I am also considering academic or industry careers.

What challenges have you faced in getting to where you are today?

My greatest challenges at UCI in being where I am today involved accessibility and finding community. The number of visually impaired adults pursuing STEM fields is disproportionately low, in part because scientists typically convey information visually. For example, material is often presented using charts and figures, but creating tactile materials such as braille or raised line drawings is more demanding. Furthermore, few statistics computer programs are designed to analyze scientific data using keyboard shortcuts. Such interfaces limit the extent to which individuals with visual disabilities can access the information, thus increasing the time to complete tasks. Among three UCI graduate students who were blind including me, I was the only visually impaired one pursuing science.

I identify as a Latina first-generation female graduate student who is blind. Given my intersectional underrepresented identities and the ableist microaggressions I faced, finding community was also difficult. I was one of about four Latinx graduate students in cognitive sciences to my knowledge and the only blind one. Fortunately, I found welcoming communities of supportive students and faculty thanks to the Chican@/Latin@ Graduate Student Collective (CLGSC), the Chicano/Latino Graduate Emphasis, and to the Diverse Educational Community and Doctoral experience (DECADE) program. I was privileged to serve on the CLGSC executive board, represent cognitive sciences for DECADE at the campus level, as well as co-chair the DECADE School of Social Sciences council, allowing me to meet and collaborate with fellow students across disciplines.


© UC Irvine School of Social Sciences - 3151 Social Sciences Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697-5100 - 949.824.2766