Newsletter Article

McNair Scholar Awarded for Language Research

Photo: Jose Ceballos
Photo: Jose Ceballos

Jose Ceballos is a first year Cognition & Perception student working with Chantel Prat. As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, Jose participated in the prestigious Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program. The McNair Program assists and prepares undergraduate students for doctoral studies by providing research, academic, and networking support. As a graduate of the that Program, Jose was eligible to be nominated for a graduate Ronald E. McNair Fellowship offered through the Graduate Opportunity and Minority Achievement Program (GO-MAP) of the Graduate School. This highly competitive fellowship provides the recipient with tuition waivers, health insurance coverage, and a stipend for both the first year of graduate training and for the final year of study when the dissertation work is completed.   The Psychology Department is grateful that our promising scholar was selected for such a prestigious award and look forward to watching Jose develop as a scholar and scientist.

Jose was interviewed for this article by Jeanny Mai, our award-winning Graduate program Advisor.

Let's start with the basics, where are you from and where did you complete undergrad/
I was born in Miami but raised in Madrid, Spain for a few years after birth and then
Medellin, Colombia from elementary school until high school. I went to the University of
Florida in Gainesville, FL for undergrad.   

How did you wind up at UW/why did you apply here? What do you think about living in
Good question! Basically, a few really great research experiences in undergrad led me to
want to pursue a PhD in the cognitive neurosciences rather than purely theoretical
linguistics. Chantel Prat’s research in the neural basis of individual differences in language comprehension, along with her neuroimaging experience perfectly matched my research interests. Ultimately, it was how well I connected with Chantel, and my super-positive experience during interview weekend brought me here.

I absolutely love Seattle; the city is beautiful and feels very charming to me (despite the frequent grayness). It’s a weird feeling, but from my first night in the city during interview weekend I had this feeling of “this is it… Seattle is the city for me.” So far I’ve been right about that, I’ve had really great experiences in the city and the surrounding areas!

What is your research interest and how did you get into it (what inspires/motivates you)?

I am broadly interested in the neural basis of language & higher-level cognition. I’m
particularly interested in the interrelatedness of various cognitive functions (e.g. how
multilingualism affects executive function).

I’ve had a curiosity for language since I was a young kid. With a bilingual and multicultural upbringing, I think I developed a pretty strong sense of metalinguistic awareness early on.  This essentially drove much of my intellectual curiosity and academic development, but my desire to study language dates back to my initial exposure to language research and theory with Steven Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct. I remember being mind-blown by this book back in 9th grade, and shortly after signing up for a psychology elective course. This may sound personal statement-y, but much of what inspires me is how much work remains to be done in the field. I’d like to one day be known as a pioneer in language research!

How did you feel when you learned the department nominated you for the award and you
received it?

I believe Chantel first mentioned it over the phone, and I recall thinking “Me? Really…?” It definitely caught me by surprise! I am incredibly grateful and honored to have received this award, as it has allowed me to transition more smoothly into the occasional madness that is grad school.

What do you hope to accomplish/What questions are you trying to answer with the funding
and/or while in the UW Psychology graduate program?

I’m currently working on my first year project where I aim to test the hypothesis that
increased inhibitory control in bilinguals is related to decreased impulsive behaviors
relative to monolinguals. Ultimately, I want my project to provide support for linguistic and nonlinguistic brain-training paradigms to improve inhibitory control and by extension reduce impulsive behavior.

What has been your most interesting finding to date on this project?

The project is currently piloting and we’re just about to start gathering participant data, so the only interesting finding to date is that I-LABS can be awfully scary at night.

On a more serious note… Through my review of the background literature, I was really
amazed at the lack of consensus over the definition of many of these broader aspects of executive function, such as inhibitory control. I initially found this to be a little frustrating, but I then figured it gives me the opportunity to work on projects to help clarify these gray areas in the literature.

Since you're in your first year of graduate study, do you have any advice/tips/suggestions for others who are looking to apply for graduate programs?

One of the questions I hear most frequently is if it’s a good idea to go straight from
undergrad to grad school, with no time off in between. Although many people would likely say no, I think it ultimately depends on how certain you are about grad school being the “right” choice for yourself. Graduate programs are taxing, so I’d advise people to be sure they’re doing something they’re truly passionate about. Five or six stressful years doing work you hate is certainly a recipe for unhappiness!

What do you like doing in your spare time?

I really enjoy exercising in my spare time. I swim almost every night for about an hour, and I’ve also picked up archery here at the IMA on Mondays and Wednesdays. I also hike during the weekends! Swimming, archery, and hiking have really helped me maintain healthy levels of stress over the past few weeks!

The last book and/or movie you saw and enjoyed?

Currently (struggling to keep up with) reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, and I’m hooked! I use my commute to and from campus to get a few pages in and will sometimes read a few pages before bed. That often turns out to be a bad idea, as I’ll stay up late reading!

What do you plan to do once you complete your PhD?

I’d love to postdoc for 2 years (ish), go onto a tenure-track position, lead my own lab,
teach, and mentor my own grad students, hopefully somewhere on the west coast. I don’t have a sense of where I’d like to postdoc yet, but hopefully that will become clearer to me over the next two years.

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