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Gary Cottrell

Computer Science and Engineering

Gary Cottrell portrait

Active 1993 - 2021; Emeritus 2021; Recalled 2022 - 2024

In 1985, Dr. Garrison Cottrell came to UC San Diego as a postdoc with David Rumelhart, one of the reinventors of the back propagation learning rule. Dr. Cottrell joined as a faculty member in 1987 in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), which was newly established at that time. The most influential colleagues he met at the university were Dave Rumelhart and Jeff Elman.

During his time at UCSD, he served as the Director of the Temporal Dynamics Learning Center (TDLC): A Science of Learning Center funded by NSF at $33M over 10 years. TDLC included 40 PIs at 18 institutions in 4 countries and many more trainees. The purpose of the Center was to study the role of time and timing in learning - from the millisecond (synapse) scale up to year-long (classroom) scale. Dr. Cottrell still serves as Director of the Interdisciplinary PhD Program (IDP) in Cognitive Science, a position he continues to hold during his current recall to service. The IDP is a way for Ph.D. students in the eight participating departments, Anthropology, Communication, Computer Science and Engineering, Linguistics, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Psychology, and Sociology to get their degrees in “X and Cognitive Science”, where X is their home department. Dr. Cottrell secured much funding on his own for the program, including an NSF IGERT in Vision & Learning in Humans and Machines and the TDLC grant.

Some fun facts about Dr. Cottrell are that he went to the original WoodStock; He loves theatre;He likes antiques, in fact his most prized possession is a Louis 16th knockoff china cabinet from his parents.

He is still working on campus teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in deep learning. He obtained three new grants last year (2022). The first, an NSF Research Experience for Teachers Site, will be introducing San Diego high school computer science and math teachers to deep learning in a 6-week summer program (2-week bootcamp and 4-weeks working in a lab). The second, an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates Site, will train undergraduates in deep learning and get them involved in research starting this fall. In order to have a diverse site, he will recruit at least half of the students from local community colleges. The third grant is an NSF Collaborative Research in Computational Neuroscience (CRCNS) grant, which he was awarded in partnership with Virginia de Sa in Cognitive Science. They are building anatomically inspired models of the primate visual system and collaborating with monkey neurophysiologists in Japan for additional data. Furthermore, he is trying to increase diversity at the university, working on a third UC-HBCU Grant in Computer Science.

Dr. Cottrell feels his most important contribution during his time at UCSD is the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC). Scientifically, his favorite result from his research was explaining why the fusiform face area in the temporal lobe gets recruited for other visual expertise tasks. This was part of his work on anatomically inspired models of the visual system.

Advice he offers to current faculty who want to make the most out of their experience at UCSD is when writing a grant, make sure to follow the directions very closely. Propose to do things you have almost already done so it's believable that you can do what you are saying you can do. "While at UCSD, take advantage of the amazing interdisciplinary culture. Other universities say they are interdisciplinary, but here, we really do it. It can get you out of your niche and bring forth some great collaboration."

For current students he encourages undergrads to get involved in research - UCSD is one of the top public research universities in the world. "If you are interested in a course: sit in the front, ask lots of questions and go to office hours and get an A+. Then, ask the professor after the course if they have any research you might be able to help with (check webpages to see that they are still publishing)."

To graduate students: start your research early, and often. "Don't wait until finishing coursework to get started! The hardest time will be after you pass your dissertation proposal defense, and there is nothing between you and your PhD but your thesis. An important thing to do in grad school is to go to the same conferences every year, whether you are presenting or not. Develop a cohort of people that know you – these are people that will write your recommendation letters for tenure. If you aren't working at least 60 hours a week on your dissertation you aren't working hard enough."