Voices and Ideas

ΦBK Couple Combines Liberal Arts and Sciences in Career

Audrey McMillion

Marius Cătălin Iordan and Elise Ann Piazza grew up in different parts of the world: he in Bucharest, Romania, where he visited the Black Sea every summer, and she in Pittsford, New York, where she became interested in music and science but was unsure how to merge the two. Their worlds converged in 2005 when they met as dorm mates at Williams College, home to the Gamma of Massachusetts Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. As Iordan and Piazza entered and processed their new world in Williamstown, Massachusetts, they became close friends, and the two began dating the following year. 

During their time at Williams College, they developed their academic interests and began to discover ways in which their work intersected, something that they especially began to nurture in a senior seminar on cognitive science as they debated problems in neuroscience and philosophy. The two also studied cognitive science elsewhere; Piazza studied abroad at the University of Oxford, and they both spent time at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which strengthened their partnership and research interests as well as their desire to pursue PhDs. 

During their senior year at Williams College, they were both inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, and they jointly received the Horace F. Clark Fellowship Prize, an award from Williams that would support their graduate research. In 2009, Piazza graduated with majors in psychology and music and with a concentration in cognitive science. Iordan graduated with majors in computer science and math, also with a concentration in cognitive science. Both felt that they had many opportunities to conduct research in cognitive science at Williams College. It was a strong start to their academic careers.

Although their major fields of study were different, as they began their graduate research, their work converged in the field of vision science. Human vision is a complex, multistage process that recruits dozens of brain regions. 

Piazza attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied visual and auditory perception and the way people integrate information across all of their senses. Her research delved into processes of prediction and learning, investigating how the human brain detects patterns in its buzzing environment and draws order from chaos to construct a meaningful representation of the world. 

Iordan’s studies in cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence took him to Stanford University. There, he related computational approaches to the way the human brain processes visual cues and organizes knowledge. The goal of his research in computer science was to provide humanity with improved, biologically inspired artificial vision systems. During his time at Stanford, he coordinated Stanford’s Science Teaching through Art program and led outreach programs for science in San Francisco Bay Area high schools and community colleges.

In 2012, Piazza and Iordan celebrated their marriage with dual ceremonies — one near the bride’s home in upstate New York in August of that year, and the other in the groom’s country, Romania, in November. Then, as they finished their PhDs in early 2015, Iordan received a ΦBK Dissertation Fellowship from the Northern California Association, and Piazza received the ΦBK Dissertation Fellowship from the Alpha of California Chapter at Berkeley. They were initially somewhat nervous about competing against each other for the awards, but in the end, they both received one and actually accepted their awards together at the ΦBK Northern California Association awards ceremony. 

These fellowships are given to students nearing the end of their dissertations and seeking to pursue other study. Piazza and Iordan are the first married couple to jointly receive the award. “We are very grateful for the warm words of encouragement and support we received from ΦBK and its local chapters before, during, and after the awards ceremony,” they said. In the past year, the fellowships have allowed Piazza and Iordan many travel opportunities and enrichment experiences in their field, enabling them to speak at conferences and visit other universities to share their work as they begin to build future collaborations with scientists at different institutions.

In September of 2015, Piazza began her postdoctoral studies at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, a part of Princeton University, with a C.V. Starr postdoctoral fellowship. She has begun studying the neural underpinnings of communication and music processing in naturalistic settings. Iordan will begin his own postdoctoral studies at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute starting in spring 2016. He will be investigating the neural representation of visual structure by studying the fluidity of people’s representations of the world and how our brains adapt to constantly changing task demands. 

Piazza and Iordan’s work will continue to tackle human perception at different levels of the brain’s hierarchy. They expect that their personal research trajectories will continue to interact in interesting ways, as each one provides new insights to the other.

Piazza and Iordan look forward to working side-by-side at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, and they hope that one day they might share a lab of their own. “We are excited to continue synthesizing our different perspectives and backgrounds going forward,” they said. “We hope that one of the ideas we often cook up at our kitchen table will generate a research collaboration someday soon.” 

Steven Miller, an associate professor of mathematics at Williams College, spoke in praise of Piazza and Iordan’s amazing successes and interests as alumni: “We at Williams are incredibly proud not just of their accomplishments, but that they are able to pursue their love of learning together, and wish them all the best in their future endeavors.” 

Marius C
ătălin Iordan and Elise Ann Piazza. Both were inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Williams College in 2009.

Audrey McMillion is a senior at Hendrix College majoring in English. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.

(Posted on 12/21/2015 )