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Close Up Joan Ongchoco: First Filipina Awarded The William James Prize

Joan Ongchoco: First Filipina Awarded The William James Prize

Photo: Yale University
Photo: Yale University
By Jove Moya
By Jove Moya
July 15, 2021
Filipina Yale graduate student Joan Ongchoco has won a prestigious William James Award for her breakthrough "Figments of imagination: Scaffolded attention creates non-sensory object and event representations".

For the first time ever, a Filipina bagged the prestigious William James Prize by the Society for Philosophy and Psychology (SPP) in the United States.

Since holding its inaugural meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1974, the SPP conference has brought together the world's biggest scientists, philosophers, and psychologists who produce studies that contribute to cognitive science.

The recipient of the award is Joan Ongchoco, a Filipina PhD candidate of Yale University who worked on her research called “Figments of imagination: Scaffolded attention creates non-sensory object and event representations”.

In a dialogue with Tatler Philippines, Ongchoco described what she has been working on in the past few years. "Think: a regular grid pattern such as what you might find on a piece of graph paper, or the tiles on your bathroom floor.  What do you see?  In many ways, this may be incredibly simple stimuli -- there's nothing there but the squares.  But this is precisely why it's even more curious that many people report seeing all sorts of more complex shapes and patterns beyond the individual squares themselves (say, horizontal or diagonal lines, or even block-letters or shapes)," she shared.

"This is true not just for regular squares, but also for regular beats.  We’ve found that when listening to a regular sequence of tones or beats, many people also hear all sorts of more complex rhythms.  These are effective 'hallucinations', but unlike how we typically think of hallucinations (as those occurring only in clinical contexts), these occur in everyday settings and can be experienced by many people," she further explained.

According to Ongchoco, her study seeks to delve deeper into the creativity and powerful imagination of the human mind. "Unlike how we typically think of hallucinations (as those occurring only in clinical contexts), these occur in everyday settings and can be experienced by many people.  This is what I am interested in: where does this active imagination come from?"

Related: Three Filmmakers Bag Awards At The Nespresso Talents 2021

Photo: Jesse Orrico on Unsplash
Photo: Jesse Orrico on Unsplash

The young scientist also disclosed the hardships she faced while making the research. "The process of research isn't easy.  My adviser always tells me: 'you're not doing research right unless 90% of your experiments fail.'  This 10 per cent success rate means that there's a lot of trial-and-error and an immense amount of disappointment before any discovery is made."

Ongchoco said she is grateful for her family and friends who stood with her amid the difficult process. "I remember coming home after a long day in the lab once, and my parents had saved me a single Reese's cupcake -- and I remember crying as I took a bite because even that simplest joy made the whole day easier!  I think this is why I also raise my glass up to all the other scientists out there -- and why I'm even more grateful to everyone who has been with me through this whole process -- holding me through really really bad days."

For Onghoco, receiving the William James Prize is an honour that she is glad to share with her loved ones and all the Filipino children who look up to scientists. "It's really an honour -- especially to be able to share it with my adviser, my mentors, my professors from college, all of whom nurtured my interest in philosophy and psychology in the first place," she said.

"But it's even more special because I get to share it with my family and closest friends, my teachers, and of course, my fellow kababayan. When I was young, I knew very few Filipina scientists, and I think this constrained what I thought was possible, what I thought I could even be when I grew up -- so I guess this prize is for the young girls, the young boys too, but really, the young girls out there.  Ask the questions that capture your imagination, and pursue those answers," she added.

"All this put simply: I’m just so grateful."

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