A NYC Restauranteur’s Sideline Is Studying Cognitive Neuroscience at the CUNY Graduate Center

Caesar Ekya (right) prepares for an experiment with Cathleen Rowe (left) and Nikki Gerohristodoulos (center). (Photo credit: Coralie Carlson)

With the resumption of in-person learning at the CUNY Graduate Center, the lab of Presidential Professor Tony Ro (Psychology, Biology) is once again a busy place. Master’s and Ph.D. students have returned to conduct a variety of neuroscience experiments. In early September, Caesar Ekya, a student in the M.S. Program in Cognitive Neuroscience, was back in the lab with fellow students to run tests for his thesis. 

He spoke to us about his project and how his studies complement his day- and night-job as a restaurant co-owner. 

GC: Tell us about your research and the experiment that you were running today.

Ekya: We are studying how humans perceive, and sometimes misperceive, faces. It has long been known that faces generate very specific and identifiable potentials, or electrical charges caused by brain cells, on the scalp that can be read using EEG. In our experiment we are trying to see if these potentials are also generated when we think that we saw a face even when there was no face there.

GC: How does it feel to be back at the Graduate Center conducting research?

Ekya: It feels great to be in a lab regularly! I had just started in the Ro lab before COVID shut everything down and we were unable to make any progress for a whole year. Then earlier this year we were allowed to come inside in small groups and by making appointments two weeks in
advance, and I was able to use those rare moments in the lab to finish designing the experiment. Now we are picking up momentum and I am actually able to collect data on people.

GC: You co-own S’MAC (Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese) in the East Village and you have a master’s degree in electrical engineering. How did you decide to get an M.S. in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Graduate Center?

Ekya: Business tends to be a practical enterprise, as in you show up to work, and there are several things that need to be solved, you solve them and call it a day. There is little room for intellectual work. I love to engage with and think deeply about the world around us and I definitely felt this lack of intellectual stimulation over the years. Right now, I am pursuing this master’s degree in Cognitive Neuroscience part time and this pace allows me to stay engaged with the business, stay engaged with the family, and also engage my brain with coursework and lab work. I feel like I have found a great balance for my life.

GC: What has it been like for you to be back in school?

Ekya: It has been a wonderful experience honestly. I wasn't sure about this myself and didn't know if going back to school was just a fantasy that I would hate once I was actually in a classroom. So I took a course at Baruch and another at Hunter just to get back into the swing of things and I loved every minute of it! The school, the library, the lab, these are my happy places where I go to disengage from business stress. It is also a very different college experience from when I was in my teens and 20s. Back then I couldn't wait to finish and get into the “real world.” Now I take my time with the coursework and savor it.

GC: What do you hope to do next once you have your degree?

Ekya: Get another degree! I have an abiding interest in religion and especially the neuroscience of religion is what I would like to focus on. Eventually I would like to get a Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience and then use those neuroscience tools and apply them to the study of religion. But that is all a few years out. I have two boys — 12 and 8 years old — and I am loving being a father. Owning a business allows my wife and I the flexibility to be present for their lives and I don't want to add a Ph.D. load just yet. I figure I can wait till the younger one turns 14 and doesn’t want to hang out with me anymore and then I could start a Ph.D. In the meantime, once I finish this master’s, I might try to do another part-time master's in animal psychology or philosophy of mind.

GC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ekya: I just want to say something about CUNY. Having moved to New York City in 2005, and having done all of my college work elsewhere, I wasn't aware of the CUNY system. But now that I have taken courses at various campuses and seen all that there is to offer, this is an amazing resource for us New Yorkers! It is a reasonably priced university with world-class facilities and professors. I am constantly amazed by that and am always boosting it when talking to people thinking about college.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.

Submitted on: SEP 15, 2021

Category: Cognitive Neuroscience | Diversity | GCstories | General GC News | Student News | Voices of the GC