Kyle Nolla

Kyle Nolla, PhD Student 
Northwestern University


What is your work/research topic? I’m interested in two areas of cognitive psychology: creativity and the cognition of competitive video gaming. Lately, I’ve concentrated my efforts on my gaming research. I’ve been a gamer my whole life, my partner is an ex-semi-pro gamer, and I’ve been involved in a competitive gaming community for a few years (Super Smash Bros), so I have a lot of insight into gaming, support for my research, access to the gamer population, and so on. I’m lucky to have an advisor that’s letting me forge ahead with these projects, even though video game research is still treated with skepticism in academia.

NollaKKyle Nolla is a PhD student at Northwestern University. Follow Kyle @kylenolla (for research) and @drpiggyphd (for everything else).

What was your best day of science? I don’t know that I’ve had one particular best day. However, I find that the times I enjoy most are when I’ve cleaned up a data set and I’m ready to ask the questions I want to of it. I also love planning the next experiment, thinking about the next question to ask. And the “Aha!” moment when I’m reading literature and realize its link to my work. The days where I really feel steeped in the scientific process are the most fun and rewarding.

What was your worst day in science? My worst days are when I succumb to self-doubt. Does this research actually contribute to anything? Do people think I’m just playing around? Are my methods solid enough? Sometimes the doubt is brought on by an outside stimulus, such as a random gamer on the internet with a particularly skeptical comment about my work. On those days, it’s enough to get through.

What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? Gamecube controller, easy. If I’m holding it, I could be doing so many things: I might be teaching novices about basic game controls, testing hardware and code that will record button presses with extreme precision, or playing the game to help a higher-level participant warm up. Besides the nostalgia it imparts, it’s my number-one tool for the research I’m passionate about, so definitely my favorite.


Where did you grow up? I was born and raised in the Midwest. I’ve lived the last 6 years in Chicago, where I’ve confirmed that I’m definitely more of a city gal than a country gal.

What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? As a young child, I wanted to be an all-in-one astronaut/ballerina/secret agent/entomologist. Clearly, 6-year-old me was not good at predicting the future (0 for 4!), but that unique career does still describe my love of science, art, and adventure.

What do you do to relax outside of lab? In the evenings, I’m usually playing games (everything from survival to simulation to horror to action rogue-likes). I do a whole host of creative things to unwind, from painting to piano. I also play Dungeons & Dragons on a weekly basis. Oh, and in the summer I act in the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Basically, I’m a giant nerd.

NollaK_Kennedy.JPGDo you have any pets? Yes. I have an 11-year-old long-haired Dachshund named Kennedy. I bring him to the lab with me at least once a week where he enchants the other grad students and our lab manager. If I don’t watch him carefully, he’ll sneak into my advisor’s office just to be there because he knows it’s the only place he’s not allowed to hang out.

What is your family life? I live happily with my partner in an old Evanston apartment. He has retired from professional gaming to pursue a career in computer science. Our dog Kennedy is wonderful to both of us. We may get another dog soon!


Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? My mom is a doctor, and I grew up admiring that. She was independent, logical, and ambitious, and I wanted to be that kind of person, too. Her scientifically-oriented mindset definitely shaped me.

Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? I’ve thought about being an anatomical artist, combining my realism sketching with my fascination for biology. I’ve also considered neurology. But thus far, I’ve always come back to the human mind as the most interesting “great unknown,” which is why I’m still in psychology.

What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Find other girls to nerd out with… you don’t have to be the only girl, or a girl that’s “not like the others.” Other girls will understand better than anyone else the struggles you face. Also, find support in good teachers who believe in you. And follow your passion.

Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? Although my mom was a strong role model, I grew up in conservative settings in which girls weren’t really encouraged to be in STEM fields. Based on those experiences (and social psych evidence), I’ve come to believe that girls really need role models, to see that women out there are doing just fine and even great in the sciences, thank you very much, and that they can do the same. (Also… the same goes for minorities. As a Latina in science, I really wish I knew more Latinx scientists!)



What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? I have a collection of plushies from several of my favorite games. Sometimes I think undergrads judge me for it, but I love it anyway.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? ADD runs in my family. I cling to my planner desperately for survival. But, I don’t have energy to keep everything perfect. So a little of both.
Any other fun fact about you… I’ve collected pigs most of my life. I think they’re smart, cute, and awesome. It’s part of where my gamer tag came from (Dr. Piggy, PhD)!
What color socks are you wearing? Today, maroon socks with pink hearts and gray toes/heels. Maroon is my favorite color~


Webpages and Articles:

An article written for gamers on the skills that predict tournament success:

My lab webpage:

A popular press article on the experience of customizing game avatars: