The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: Kim Scott - Pacific Standard

The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: Kim Scott

The top young thinkers in economics, education, political science, and more.
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Kim Scott. (Photo: Christopher Leaman)

Kim Scott. (Photo: Christopher Leaman)

Kim Scott grew up in New Jersey, where her dad worked on Princeton University's Tokamak fusion test reactor. Her family embraced a culture of experimenting rather than theorizing: If you have a question, how can you get the universe to tell you the answer?

It was an effective way to raise a future scientist. At 16, Scott went to the California Institute of Technology on a full ride, winning the Lingle Scholarship, awarded each year to the two most promising incoming freshmen. She got her bachelor's degree in engineering and applied science, but not before taking a formative class with Christof Koch on the neuronal correlates of consciousness.

"It was thrilling," she recalls, "to start to view, 'What is it to experience things—what is this being conscious?' as a question that science might, in principle, be able to answer." What fascinated her most about her work at Caltech, though, was not the material itself, but how she and others were able to learn and reason about it.

While at Caltech, she volunteered by teaching neuroscience to minority high school students.

She also gave birth to a son, whom she named Remy.

After graduating, she moved from Southern California to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to get a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Brain and Cognitive Sciences department.

As a single mother, Scott became keenly aware of the biases that university-based research imposes on what we know about kids. In essence, psychology researchers tend to draw broad conclusions about children based on a small number of families who live near a university and can come in for a study.

That didn't seem very democratic to Scott, so she developed a way for anyone with a child, an Internet connection, and a webcam to be represented in studies: Lookit is a website that lets parents and young children participate in research about how kids learn—from anywhere, anytime. The webcam sends video of children's responses to a short task to MIT's Early Childhood Cognition Lab.

"Putting studies online," Scott explains, "lets us quickly collect larger samples so that we can draw more robust conclusions. Online, our samples are much more representative of the United States population in terms of parent education, income, and race. Working online also makes it much easier to conduct large-scale longitudinal studies."

We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.

Currently, Scott is replicating several classic studies via Lookit, ones that use verbal responses and looking measures, to ensure that their results still apply when conducted on a much broader subject pool.

Scott's peers recognize that Lookit is a fundamentally new way of doing a certain kind of science, and that it has the potential to revolutionize child psychology.

Scott is especially interested in what she calls the origins of conscious experience—what it's like to be a baby. She also wants to know what causes individual differences between infants, and what that can tell us about how humans learn about the world.

Her prior work found evidence that babies younger than 16 months old are like little split-brain patients—people who've had the connections between their left and right cerebral hemispheres severed—in that they have trouble connecting what they see on the left and on the right. (When she showed infants two matching shapes, they behaved as though they could only tell that the shapes matched if both shapes were presented on one side of their visual field.)

Despite all of the prestigious entries on her CV—among them, three years' worth of National Science Foundation grants and two awards for excellence in undergraduate teaching at MIT—her favorite accomplishment is raising her son, who's now five. "I doubt I will be as proud of any scientific achievements," Scott says, "but, to be fair, nothing I've created in the lab can give a friend a hug or generate questions about why we're not getting further away from the sun if the universe is all expanding."

In her free time, Scott reads and draws with Remy, grows vegetables, dances salsa, and goes for runs.

By the time she retires, she wants to have discovered something about what an infant's experience of the world is like, "rather than just what cognitive abilities they have to make predictions or notice differences."

She's excited to be doing research during a time when the movement toward openness and reproduction in scientific research is starting to take off. "Science has gotten to be an incredibly big enterprise," she says, "and we're finally becoming more aware of the pitfalls of publication bias, for instance, and the value of sharing data, not just results."

"There is tremendous potential," she adds, "for us to shape the culture of research to make science 'work' better at getting the world right."

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