Holly Westfall

Name: Holly Westfall
Department: Cognitive Sciences Ph.D.
Hometown: Clermont, FL
Undergrad institution: University of Florida, Gainesville, FL

What unique life experiences have guided your educational journey, and specifically your path to UCI?

I am a non-traditional student. I graduated from the University of Florida in 2007, and started work in an office. A few years later, I decided to apply to graduate school, and I received my master’s in psychology from the University of South Florida in 2013. I left USF before completing my Ph.D. to move to Irvine to live with my partner. Once in Irvine, I completed the Data Science Certificate Program through UCI’s Division of Continuing Education. In 2016, I got a job as a statistician at UCI’s own Center for Evidence-Based Corrections in the School of Social Ecology. As part of this job, I was able to travel to California’s state hospitals and interview staff, nurses, and police. This experience made me rethink the Ph.D. that I had abandoned a few years prior. I applied to UCI’s Department of Cognitive Science and was admitted in 2018. I plan to defend my dissertation in the next academic year.

What do you find most interested about your research on human memory, and what do you hope your finding help uncover?

My research focuses on human memory and how it changes with cognitive impairment caused by Alzheimer’s disease, as well as changes associated with healthy cognitive aging. I have been interested in memory research since undergrad.

My advisor and I collaborate with the Shankle Clinic, a local Alzheimer’s clinic, and Embic, a neuroinformatics company. Their goal is to be able to detect Alzheimer’s disease as early as possible, because generally earlier intervention leads to better patient outcomes. I hope that my work with cognitive models can help them better identify cognitive biomarkers and latent variables associated with changes in episodic and semantic memory.

Tell us about your faculty mentors while here, and the impact they’ve had on your graduate career.

My advisor is Michael Lee. Michael has been incredibly supportive during my time at UCI. It’s wonderful to be able to work directly with a big name in the field who is also a kind advisor. He’s managed to strike an excellent balance between pushing me out of my comfort zone without pressuring me too much.

What do you plan to do after finishing your graduate degree? How has UCI prepared you well for this role?

I hope to find a job in industry after graduation. My experience working as a statistician at UCI, taking additional statistics classes within the statistics department, taking machine learning classes within the Cognitive Sciences department, doing research with real-world clinical data, and collaborating with local businesses should make me a competitive candidate.

Any other tidbits you’d like to share?

I’m a first-generation college grad. Since starting at UCI, I have joined a weekly Dungeons and Dragons group and have run two marathons.


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