Alumni Spotlight: Caitie Hilliard, Class of 2006

caitieThis edition of Alumni Spotlight features Caitie Hilliard, who graduated from Hudson Senior High School in 2006. Since graduation Caitie has been busy furthering both her education and her career, recently earning a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa (pictured here, center, with Dr. Susan Cook, left, and Dr. Melissa Duff, right).

Read more to find out the most valuable things Caitie learned in the HHS classroom and as an HHS athlete, as well as how growing up a Bluehawk taught her what it means to persevere.

What did you do after graduation?
After graduating I went on to the University of Rochester in Western NY where I earned degrees in Brain and Cognitive Science and American Sign Language. That was also the first place that I was exposed to scientific research. I joined a lab my junior year and was immediately excited about the opportunity to test my questions about how the world works. After I graduated, I stayed at the University of Rochester for a year as a lab manager and applied for graduate school. The following year - fall of 2011 - I began a Ph.D. program at the University of Iowa.

What are you doing now?
Fast forward five years and I'm still here in Iowa, now as a freshly minted Ph.D. My Ph.D. is in Psychological and Brain Sciences with a focus on Cognition and Perception. My dissertation topic was on the memory mechanisms supporting the production of hand gesture.

I just completed graduate school and will be moving to Nashville, Tennessee in July to start a post-doctoral research position at Vanderbilt University.

What made you choose your career field?
For the past five years, I have studied why people move their hands when they talk and how these hand movements can help people learn and remember. I think I first became interested in this when I was in college. I was studying cognition - how we process and think about the world through our experiences, knowledge, and senses - and simultaneously taking American Sign Language classes. Because of the ASL classes I started to pay attention to people's hands more often and realized that I knew very little about why all people seem to gesture when they talk. So I started to read about it and realized that there was a group of people who got to study why that is. And I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to be one of those people.  

What was the most important thing you learned at the Hudson City School District?
Learning how to write - and being instructed to practice writing - was invaluable to me. I think a lot of people have this idea that people who are adept at writing are naturally good writers. But I've learned that that is a skill that I constantly need to hone in order to effectively communicate my ideas and findings.

My education outside of the classroom has been incredibly helpful as well. I played volleyball and basketball all four years of high school and the life skills that I learned through those experiences - teamwork, motivation, perseverance - are things that are difficult to explicitly teach in a classroom. You put work in and you can see - and feel - the benefits of that work. I remember feeling on top of the world when our girls’ basketball team won the Patroon Conference Championship back in 2006. We worked together toward a common goal and then after months of hard work we got to celebrate the outcome. I feel similarly now having just completed my degree with the help of a team of awesome scientists.

Lastly, there was something about growing up in Hudson - growing up a Bluehawk - that prepared me for life in a particularly special way that I don't think you can find just anywhere. When I was in school people didn't always have the nicest things to say about the Hudson City School District. We weren't ranked highly academically and that affected the opportunities that we were given, particularly for things like public funding for school programs and budgetary support. But when I looked around in high school I saw so much talent in my peers academically, athletically, and otherwise. I saw teachers working tirelessly and pushing students to be better. My senior year I saw our entire community come together to raise money to reinstate sports, art, and music programs that were slashed because of budget cuts. No matter what, Bluehawks persevere. You can't teach that at home, you can't teach that in a classroom. It takes a community to teach that.

If you could give any advice to Hudson students, what would it be?
If I could give advice to Hudson students, I would say know your worth and push yourself to improve. Look to other people in the community as role models and seek out help from them when you need them.

Read and write a LOT.  And keep on pushing toward your goals until you attain them.