Award-Winning Grad Student Pioneering Innovation in STEM

Grad student Antonio Lim in front of bridge surrounded by green forest

Antonio Lim, University of Cincinnati first-year Psychology PhD student, National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award winner, and Yates Fellow

Written by Susan Helmick, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College

The ever-expanding frontier of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – or STEM - remains a magnet for pioneers driven by innovation, and Antonio Lim, a first-year Psychology PhD student at the University of Cincinnati and recent recipient of the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) award, is among them. As a Yates Fellow and advocate for interdisciplinary research, Lim epitomizes the transformative potential of individual vision in shaping the scientific landscape. In this candid Q&A, Lim shares his aspirations for STEM diversity and innovation, and his plans to empower underrepresented communities in Appalachia and beyond.

Congratulations on being awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship! How does it feel to receive this prestigious recognition? 

Thank you! It feels very validating to me to be honest, and shocking. This semester has been particularly difficult for me managing multiple invisible disabilities and life in general. Then one morning an email appeared from the NSF saying that I was awarded the GRFP award. It feels surreal, in a good way, and a bit disorienting. But yes, I am extremely grateful, and my family was proud and happy for me, so I can’t ask for much more.

You're also a Yates Fellow at the University of Cincinnati. Can you share a bit about what being a Yates Fellow means to you and how it has impacted your academic journey so far? 

Receiving the Yates Fellowship as an incoming PhD student meant a lot to me, as I was unsure as to my potential as a scientist. UC and the psychology department saw that potential in me and made me feel more confident on this path. The Yates Fellowship Program also provides a ton of great resources and events. They’re really unique in their helpfulness. Since the Yates Fellowship Program is also such a small group in a big school, it helps you feel like you have a way to be part of a more tight-knit community apart from your program, a community that isn’t quite as attached to the culture within your program. That can be a good thing when you’re looking for insights into the broader context of “graduate school” rather than just “psychology.” It’s also such a diverse group of people in an array of fields and backgrounds. It really is unique and the program directors are so supportive. I am extremely happy to be a part of that cohort.

Your research interests span a wide range, from understanding the human condition to exploring the dynamics of homophones (words that sound alike but have different meanings, origins or spellings). What initially drew you to these diverse areas of study, and how do you see them intersecting in your work? 

I didn’t have a common thread of interest throughout my life. In other words, I never had that “ever since I was young” story. I have always been curious about the world and about who I am as a person, and how those two relate. I’ve always struggled with identity, being an ethnic minority from West Virginia. At the same time, that struggle became an object of fascination as I shifted focus from trying to understand myself to why I understand myself the way that I do. “Why do I care so much about my identity? Why do I need one? Can I change it? Do I need to define myself in a neat box?” Believe it or not, those basic questions about yourself can lead you down some unexpected paths of thought. If I ever had an “ever since I was young” story, it is that I have always seen people behave and think similarly to physical systems. People in crowds or cars on a road behave like fluids running down creeks and pipes. When we hear powerful music or speeches, we say “that touched me” as if we feel a sort of physical force affecting us, or perhaps we have felt “crushed” by bad news, or “pulled down” by sadness. We are very in touch with our bodies in their relationship to the physical world, it only makes sense that we feel in ways that are similar to that physical world happening to us, because it does.

Could you elaborate on your research within the Cognition, Action, and Perception (CAP) program at the University of Cincinnati? What insights do you hope to uncover? 

I am investigating how we can explain cognitive phenomena in terms of quantum formalism, and when it might be appropriate to do so. That is more of my personal niche area of interest. I work with Associate Professor Dr. Jay Holden, who focuses a lot on embodied cognition, complex systems, and fractal analyses of the two former topics. So, I’m learning his methods at the same time as getting a feel for our fairly unique department-specific ecological approach* to cognitive science. In quantum cognition*, I just hope to figure out what’s going on. And that’s a lifetime goal. No one doing this right now understands why or when these sorts of cognitive phenomena happen, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. Right now, our best clues are that this formalism is very effective at describing the experimental results of tasks that have uncertainty or ambiguity, as well as when cognition might be described as “irrational.” So, things like bistable perceptions, such as the blue-black versus white-gold dress meme, or assuming someone named Linda is a librarian rather than a bank teller because she wears glasses and loves to read. The vast majority of psychology and economics depends on rational agents, but rational thoughts are more so an exception to the rule of behaving irrationally when you live in a world full of uncertainty and, especially recently, false and skewed sources of information that mess with your sense of reality. So, what insights do I hope to uncover with this quantum approach? Any! We’re missing a lot.

How do you navigate the interdisciplinary nature of your research, which combines psychology, mathematics, and quantum mechanics? 

As an undergrad, I finished majors in psychology, physics, and philosophy. My research in physics related to quantum information theory, biophysics, and many-body systems. So, I at least understand mathematics and quantum mechanics in itself; the problem you run into when applying it to cognition is that you can’t just say, “Oh, the results work out so that’s all that matters.” There’s something we’re missing about why this works. The body is a macroscopic object that is infinite times more massive than quantum systems. Our brain shows no signs of having anything meaningfully quantum going on, in a physical sense. Our phenomenal experience is deterministic–we don’t perceive things existing and not existing at the same time–yet quantum theory is an indeterministic framework where single things can be everywhere at once until they’re measured. So, I navigate it blindly, just as everyone else looking into the topic does. We don’t yet understand what defines a cognitive system that can be described by quantum mathematics, so we only have a loose idea as to where to look, such as in order effects, irrational decision making, and the ilk. That, and you have to be very precise when talking about the topic, as it still seems, to some, a bit pseudo-scientific and hand-wavy.

The NSF GRFP aims to support outstanding graduate students and broaden participation in STEM fields. How do you envision your research contributing to the goals of the program, particularly in terms of advancing scientific innovation and diversity within STEM?

In my personal statement for the GRFP, I emphasized that while, yes, I do recognize myself as a racial and ethnic minority individual, my identity is tied to being Appalachian. These are not in opposition with one another, contrary to most Americans’ beliefs. I am dedicated to increasing the number of Appalachians in STEM just as much as I am dedicated to increasing racial and ethnic representation in it. There are an innumerable number of brilliant Appalachians that never had a chance from the start. There is evidence to suggest that speaking in the Appalachian dialect lowers one’s odds of being hired, despite having the same qualifications. It may marginally shift year-by-year, but my home state of West Virginia is consistently 50th in educational attainment, 50th in quality of education, 50th in school quality, and 50th in nearly every other education-, economic-, and health-related metric. To say that I am a lucky exception to the rule would be understating the fact. So, with that in mind, I suggested that I do STEM outreach to Appalachian K-12 programs, as Cincinnati isn’t far from Appalachian areas. During my year between undergrad and starting my program, I taught and tutored at a college in my hometown for their TRIO program, which helps students with disabilities and those who come from a low socioeconomic status background. I loved it. But one thing you notice is that - though this was a predominantly white institution - the majority of the students we served were persons of color. And they were working insanely hard. Full-time jobs and eighteen or more credits a semester. A lot were children of coal miners who wanted to fulfill their parents’, and their own, dreams of attending college. Our economic system is not constructed to let them thrive in academic settings. When the options are living in poverty while working nearly every hour of the day without the guarantee of success, or making a pretty good salary back home in the mines until your body breaks, which would you choose? Finally, I’d also say that I want any prospective and current graduate student struggling with their own disabilities* whatever they may be, to know that we are capable of overcoming them, and we do have amazing potential. Day-to-day, there may be what we perceive as failures, or we might have to say “I can’t do this today,” but over time there is progress and achievement.

Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for your research and academic career? How do you see your work evolving over the next few years, both within your doctoral program and beyond? 

I aspire in general to do the most with my time here, both at UC and on Earth! I don’t want to regret not having explored something I felt a strong inclination towards. If quantum cognition has shown anything, it is that rationality isn’t everything in life, and irrationality isn’t always so irrational. I want to do things that interest me, and hopefully leave with some notable findings while having helped people. On the practical side of things, science is my life right now and will be for the foreseeable future. I understand that. But I am a big believer in not pigeon-holing yourself into one thing. I would really like to apply these methods I’m developing now into other fields as well, such as clinical psychology and economics. Maybe this could be achievable within the short span of a doctoral program, but probably not. Nevertheless, I want to do them at the end of the day, so being me, I will give them my best shot no matter what. Honestly, science is wonderful, but I hope that is not how I am remembered when I’m gone. I would like to make an impact on my home and those who are our most vulnerable, in some way or another. I just want to be remembered for trying my best, to be kind and understanding, while helping others get to where they want to be while remaining who they are.

Finally, what advice would you offer to aspiring graduate students who are interested in pursuing interdisciplinary research and applying for prestigious fellowships like the NSF GRFP? 

Literally just do it. That goes for either of them. If you want to pursue an interdisciplinary topic, do what you need to do to understand the basics of both fields. Do research in both separately and read papers and books and practice until you’re nauseous. You don’t know something until you can explain it to somebody who doesn’t know anything about it. And that itself is good practice, because quantum physicists don’t know psychology and psychologists don’t know quantum physics. The NSF GRFP is a mix between a balancing act and the rolling of dice. Read a lot of previous winners’ essays and know the solicitation like the back of your hand. There are also resources online put together by other recipients that helped me write my own essays. I’m not going to act like it was all in my head, that I didn’t need help figuring it all out, that I didn’t write twenty drafts; I did. It’s an arduous and stressful process and you will never get it perfect. That’s okay! I didn’t even think mine would be reviewed, let alone get funded. Don’t forget, they explicitly say they’re funding the person, not the research. With that in mind, be personal and professional in the personal statement. Demonstrate your perseverance and doggedness both in life and scholarship. Show you’re concerned about your communities as well as science. At the very least, trust yourself when it comes to your personal statement. Find and explain personal significance in each remarkable step you’ve taken on your way here, even if it’s not linear. Mine wasn’t!

*Editor’s Notes:

The above article referred to the following subjects:

  • Quantum cognition: Quantum cognition applies principles from quantum mechanics to human decision-making and information processing.

  • Ecological Approach: An approach that is focused on the relationship of the individual to the systems in which they act.

  • Graduate students with disabilities: UC graduate students with disabilities can access resources and support to navigate their advanced degree, including accommodations.