Growing up in Academia with Lisa Miracchi
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Academia is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
Each event features an open conversation (interview) with a different faculty member, representing the broad spectrum of academic life. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that universally inform the profession, but that too often remain unspoken. These events will be hosted and presented by Lucia Melloni (Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics).
On Tuesday, February 7, 6 p.m. CET, Growing Up in Academia features Lisa Miracchi, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver.
You can register for the event by using this link.
The Official CV
Lisa Miracchi Titus is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver, as well as an IEEE Tech Ethics Ambassador and a member of the IEEE SA Working Group on the Ethics of LAWS. Before coming to the University of Denver, Lisa was an Associate Professor of Philosophy with tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was also affiliated with their Cognitive Science (MindCORE) and Robotics (GRASP) Centers. She works on issues regarding the nature and explanation of mind and intelligence, as well as the ethical implications of AI and robotics technology. She works on issues regarding the nature and explanation of mind and intelligence and the development and application of AI and robotics systems, as well as the ethical implications of AI and robotics technology. What makes intelligent systems different from other kinds of systems? What kinds of explanations of intelligent systems are possible, or most important? What are appropriate conceptions of real-world intelligent capacities like those for agency, knowledge, and rationality? How can conceptual clarity on these issues advance cognitive science and aid in the effective and ethical development and application of AI and robotic systems? Lisa’s work draws together diverse literatures in the cognitive sciences, AI, robotics, epistemology, and ethics to systematically address these questions. She has published in high profile philosophy journals such as the Journal of Philosophy and Philosophical Studies, and has interdisciplinary publications in venues such as Frontiers in Neurorobotics. In 2022 she was awarded an NEH grant for her book project, tentatively titled Meaning and Intelligence: Towards the Next Wave Effective and Ethical Intelligence Research, which develops a systematic approach to intelligence and its explanation, and facilitates the integration of ethical, feminist, and social justice concerns into AI development and research.
Before coming to the University of Denver, Lisa was an Associate Professor of Philosophy with tenure at the University of Pennsylvania, where she was also MindCORE and GRASP (General Robotics Automation Sensing and Perception Lab) Affiliated Faculty. Additionally, Lisa is passionate about making academia more diverse and inclusive. At Penn, she served as the Philosophy Department Wellness Advisor, as well as a Faculty Wellness Advisor to graduate students in SAS. She was also a member of the LGBTQ+ Faculty Working Group. Lisa received her Ph.D. in Philosophy and Certificate in Cognitive Science from Rutgers University, New Brunswick in 2014, and her A.B. in Philosophy from Harvard in 2009. Before coming to Penn, she was a Bersoff Assistant Professor/ Faculty Fellow of Philosophy at NYU, and was associated with NYU's Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness.
The Unofficial CV
Growing up I had a lot of passions, mainly art, theater, dancing, poetry. I also had a lot of pressure to perform and succeed at a high level across a range of activities, especially academically. I really enjoyed math and science but in high school I battled anxiety. It got so bad I would freeze in tests and not be able to fill them out. I realized that I needed to somehow overcome my anxiety, but I had no tools or models for how to do that. I pushed through and managed — on paper — to overcome these challenges. But I hadn’t dealt with the underlying issues.
I arrived at Harvard at age 17 and had a hard first year. Despite performing highly on the entrance exam, a mixture of anxiety and imposter syndrome got the best of me and I had a terrible experience in the math class I took. In those days we had to declare our majors in the Spring of our first year, and when I told my parents I wanted to major in Visual and Environmental Studies (aka Art) they threatened to pull their financial support. They wanted something “academic” and I had taken a Philosophy course that semester that I like a lot. So I put down Philosophy as my major, never intending it to really stick. The next year I took a philosophy of mind course and it, well, blew my mind. I was so excited that people were asking the BIG questions — about how the whole world, including consciousness, could be made out of fundamental physical particles, about what it meant to have thoughts and feelings and what science could reveal about human nature and capacities. In the meantime, I was in a long distance relationship with someone at another university, and we decided to study architecture abroad together. Since I was taking a semester of electives, I took four philosophy courses at once in the same semester. I really enjoyed it and did very well. So I thought that maybe Philosophy was something I should actually take seriously. I did that study abroad in Florence. My partner and I had an apartment that overlooked the Duomo at sunset, and it was generally the most perfect experience one could hope for. And, still, I missed being holed up doing philosophy. So I decided to go do that.
I applied to PhD programs and got admitted to Rutgers, which had a very strong cognitive science program. I chose it in large part because of that and got involved. But I never was a perfect fit there. I wanted to question traditional computationalist philosophical theories, while many people there seemed wholly committed to those views as the only viable framework for cognitive science. I was doing great academically, but I was burning out and my health was suffering. I started doing yoga classes online and found a kind of relief and healing that I didn’t know was possible. I also helped start Rutgers’ Climate Committee, which aimed to make the graduate student experience more inclusive and positive for all students. I went on the market in my fifth year. My best friend from college was killed in a car accident that October. The weekend I went to her funeral my brother, newly graduated from college and finding his own way, moved in with me and my fiancé. I was very successful on the job market, getting first a Bersoff Fellowship at NYU and then a tenure-track job at the University of Pennsylvania. But we were unable to solve the two body problem, and two months after my fiancé and I got married, he moved to a job in another country. While I was at NYU, I was excited by the amazing community of philosophers and cognitive scientists. I started exploring some of my more controversial ideas and developing them. I grew a lot intellectually, but I was also very lonely, newly married but long-distance from my spouse, and dealing with stress-related health issues. In the Spring I enrolled in a yoga teacher training, and found a source of community and support that gave me peace and tools to make progress on the challenges I was facing.
My first year at Penn I got divorced, and in order to grapple with the fall-out I re-committed to my wellness journey. I started regular therapy again, dove into the Philadelphia yoga scene as both a practitioner and teacher, and started exploring some buried questions about my sexual orientation. Although I had identified as queer since I was 15, it took me 13 more years after that to come out as gay, and to start living my personal life fully authentically. Early in my time at Penn I got involved with GRASP, the robotics lab there. AI was picking up in hype, and this was a great opportunity for me to develop my interests in AI in a way that made theoretical sense given my interests in embodiment and some of my skepticism about standard theories in neuroscience and cognitive science. The robot has to work, and I’ve found people pretty open to theorizing about different framework ideas and strategies for how to make it do that. A series of fortunate events have led me to pursue philosophy of AI and robotics -- from both a philosophy of science angle and an ethics angle. Mainly it has been a balance of taking advantage of the opportunities that land in my lap and working to integrate those opportunities into a coherent research program.
In Summer 2019 I met the love of my life — the only problem was that she lived in Denver with her two kids. I began another long distance relationship when in October my mother had a massive stroke that initially left half of her body paralyzed. She is much improved, but those first few months were extremely challenging, as I was trying to get my mother’s care established while holding down a full course load and keeping up a new relationship. Luckily, Liz — now my wife — showed herself to be truly generous and amazing in those early days. I knew very early on that there was nothing more important in life than being with her. That meant being in Denver, and so I had to figure out how to get there. Then in March 2020 I was supposed to visit her for two days over Spring Break. I packed a big suitcase, not knowing what would happen with the emerging Covid crisis, and I am sure glad I did! Classes went online, and I never left Denver. That Spring I turned in my tenure file, became a step-parent to two amazing kiddos, and started my journey on the Front Range. Luckily the timing worked out. The following year I was on sabbatical with a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I also got married and applied for jobs in Denver.
I ended up winning a junior search at the University of Denver in Philosophy. This meant that I had to give up tenure at Penn — an Ivy League — for an untenured position and a big pay cut at another university. But I knew that nothing was more important to me than my family, and so I took the plunge. I’m up for tenure again this year, and (knock on wood) it’s all going well so far. I feel like I’ve managed to “keep the plane flying” so to speak, while dealing with all these personal changes. But I still feel like I have a lot of work to do to figure out what my next professional steps might be: how to start growing roots in Denver, how to find new collaborators and stay connected to old ones, how to balance work and a newly robust family life, and how to keep developing my research, especially in AI and ethics of AI.
The event will be held on Zoom. Pleaso note the Data Protection Information Regarding Zoom Webinars.