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Thinking hard about social problems

A senior in brain and cognitive sciences, Aliya Dincer turns next to challenges in education and economics.
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Dincer (at far right) and other MIT students perform a hip hop piece in the Fall 2011 DanceTroupe show.
Dincer (at far right) and other MIT students perform a hip hop piece in the Fall 2011 DanceTroupe show.
Dincer, or Nala, the nickname she goes by at camp, spends an afternoon with the campers and counselors of Team Mario at Camp Kesem last summer.
Dincer, or Nala, the nickname she goes by at camp, spends an afternoon with the campers and counselors of Team Mario at Camp Kesem last summer.
Dincer (Nala) with counselors Poppy, Java and Sonic at Camp Kesem last summer.
Dincer (Nala) with counselors Poppy, Java and Sonic at Camp Kesem last summer.
Photo: Allegra Boverman

From the brain to the classroom to Mexico, MIT senior Aliya Dincer is determined to make an impact. A brain and cognitive sciences major pursuing a minor in education policy and with a growing interest in economics, Dincer is drawn to complex social problems and data-driven approaches to solving them.

Born and raised in the Boston area, Dincer played in the hallways of MIT as a child, when each weekend she would attend Turkish language classes held on campus. Dincer is a second-generation Turkish American; her father emigrated from Turkey for his final year of undergraduate study, earning a chemical engineering degree from MIT and going on to graduate work at the Institute. But Dincer knew little about MIT until her last years of high school, when she visited campus as part of her college search. “I realized that MIT was about being creative; it was about figuring out how to solve problems, whatever discipline they may be in,” Dincer says.

Thoughts on the brain

Dincer’s chosen discipline was brain and cognitive sciences. “I loved anything I read about the brain,” she says. “I love thinking about how the brain solves problems, how it makes decisions — it’s just so complex.”

Mentored by associate professor of cognitive neuroscience Rebecca Saxe, Dincer completed an original research project during her junior year: She investigated an effect known to cognitive scientists as “confabulation,” in which a person provides false information while believing that the information is true. For example, in cognitive studies where participants were shown a series of words or pictures, they would often assert afterward that they had seen a word or picture that had not been shown to them — a false memory, which is a type of confabulation.

Dincer hoped to explore the phenomenon by probing the effects of confabulation on behavior. Once people have confabulated, would they stay true to the confabulation, or could they be incentivized to change their behavior against their false belief?

Dincer talking with a student during an Amphibious Achievement session.
Dincer talking with a student during an Amphibious Achievement session.
Photo: Allegra Boverman

At first, Dincer’s proposal was met with raised eyebrows; it seemed like a challenging project for an undergraduate. “But Rebecca Saxe sat down with me and we just thought about it harder and longer,” Dincer says. Together, they came up with an experimental design: Using two virtual decks of cards, a computer, and a large group of subjects, Dincer tested the question. She found that, in fact, people who confabulated were split: Some stuck with their confabulation in spite of psychological incentives, while others were more receptive to incentives, and readily rejected their confabulation. The questions raised in the experiment, Dincer says, have fascinating implications for our understanding of how people assign importance to incentives versus personal — and possibly false — beliefs.

For Dincer, the study’s impacts transcended its results. “One of my biggest inspirations here is Rebecca Saxe. She believes in students, and she believed in me,” Dincer says. “She taught me about how hard the problem of design is; to measure what you’re actually trying to measure, you have to think really hard about what question you want to ask. If you’re not asking the right question, you’re going to get the wrong data.”

Dincer carried that lesson with her as she designed a different sort of evaluation: tests and surveys for Amphibious Achievement, an MIT club that combines educational outreach with swimming and rowing.

The dive into education

Dincer, who swam and rowed competitively in high school, was intrigued by Amphibious Achievement when she first heard about it. Though she initially applied as a swimming and rowing instructor, she ended up as an academic coordinator for the program, designing classroom activities and curricula for Sunday classes with underprivileged Boston-area youth.

“I thought it was going to be about coaching, but for me it really spurred an interest in education and teaching,” Dincer says. She has been particularly struck by the many obstacles that her students face outside of the classroom — and how these affect their work inside it. Dincer has daily Amphibious Achievement-related meetings, spending 15 to 20 hours a week developing and running the program. “One of the things I love about Amphibious is that it’s a very serious endeavor and it takes a lot of commitment,” she says. “I pour my heart and soul into it, and it’s very much worth it because we’re working on the devastating problem of education inequity in real time.”

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the very sad problem of students not being able to fulfill their potential because of factors outside of their control,” Dincer adds. “Now, if I can do anything about that, I will.”

Two years ago, Dincer started thinking about a different version of this problem on MIT’s campus: She noticed that many students felt rushed and uninformed in choosing a major. Realizing that there was no platform for discussing majors before choosing, Dincer enlisted the help of MIT’s Undergraduate Advising and Academic Programming (UAAP) office to found a program — called Department Exploration, or DEX — for exactly that purpose.

As she continued to think about the challenges in education, Dincer was inspired by her mentors in Amphibious Achievement — such as Noam Angrist ’13, who used his knowledge of economics to rigorously evaluate the program’s effectiveness. She followed her growing interest to a summer internship at the World Bank in Washington last summer.

Turning to the world

The World Bank group that Dincer joined was working to address obesity in Mexico — one of just two countries, with the U.S., whose obesity rate is more than 30 percent. Dincer was tasked with analyzing data from a study the group had implemented in Mexico City high schools.

“They had taken about 40 schools and assigned some of them to have their lunch replaced with better food — a couple key items would be taken out and replaced. They also instituted some classes and some health propaganda around the schools,” Dincer says. “They wanted to see if that would be enough to decrease teenage obesity, which is a huge, huge problem in Mexico.”

Faced with an enormous amount of data — on everything from poverty level to parent education to chronic health status to academic achievement level — Dincer flourished. “I had all of this data on tons of students, so many variables and numbers, and I just ate it up,” Dincer says. “I thought to myself, ‘The answer’s in here somewhere.’”

Most of all, Dincer saw just how difficult it is to study such a large-scale problem. “Why do people become obese? Why are students not learning? These are population-level problems, and that makes testing much more difficult than testing in a lab, because suddenly the world is your lab,” Dincer says.

But despite the challenges — or perhaps because of them — Dincer left the internship determined to continue working on social problems from a technical perspective. After she graduates this June, she hopes to spend more time doing research and statistical analysis, connecting with kids in the classroom, and eventually returning to graduate school.

“I want to learn to quantify the social problems that impact people’s lives, figure out the mechanisms, and then change them,” Dincer says. “We need to pour funding and brainpower into developing policy changes that we know will work.”

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