Holly Pilling, Honors ’23 (Psychology): “I need to feel like my work has the possibility to make real change.”

On mind-controlled limbs, Alfredo sauce, and changing lives for the better

Fung Fellowship
6 min readNov 3, 2022

For Holly Pilling, a 19-year-old senior set to graduate from UC Berkeley in May 2023, the sky’s the limit. Though formally, Holly studies psychology, their interests span multiple disciplines. From working live performances at the International House to examining dopamine’s effects on decision making in the Haas School of Business’s Neuroeconomics Laboratory, Holly pursues those interests in any way they can. This is one of the reasons they decided that the Fung Fellowship was the place for them.

What led you to apply and join the Fung Fellowship?

When I heard about the Fung Fellowship, it seemed too good to be true. Something that accepted people of any major, stressed interdisciplinary collaboration, and taught human-centered design was very much in line with what I wanted to do.

I did the Health + Tech track specifically because my family is big in health care. My parents met when they were lab techs in a hospital. My mom is a doctor, and my dad was a medical corpsman in the Navy. I also had training in first aid for public safety personnel. So that background informed my choice originally.

How have you been able to pursue human-centered design through the Fung Fellowship?

My current project is a case study that centers our design on one person and their individual needs. I feel like I learned some of the interview skills that I need for this project from previous Fung Fellowship projects, where I learned how to design for the needs of individuals and broader populations. I definitely do think that the interview skills, persona making, and journey mapping I have practiced through the fellowship have all taught me different avenues to explore how people are thinking and what they really need.

What is your current honors project?

Last semester, I founded, and am still leading, the ExoGlove project, which is basically a mind-controlled glove. I have had two teams of brilliant people — engineers, business majors, biology majors, and neuroscience researchers — working on the physical development of a prototype for a soft robotic exoskeleton glove for the rehabilitation of people with hand paralysis. I know that’s a lot of jargon-y words all at once. Basically, it’s something that will cover the hand of someone with hand paralysis and open and close their hand for them. The part that we’re working on right now is neural integration, enabling them to open and close their hand with their mind.

It was a moonshot project coming into UC Berkeley — I never expected that I’d be able to work on neural integrated devices as an undergrad — and this is a project that I’ve gotten a lot of support and encouragement from the Fung Institute to pursue. We also got a grant this semester, so we had the funding to purchase materials like the EEG headset that I just finished 3D printing and assembling.

I don’t know anybody else who has the opportunity to do neuroscience experiments out of their dorm room!

What are your professional goals?

I figure I’ll be in the field of design in some capacity. That’s sort of the hope going forward. But I have experience in communications, business, theater, and in the sciences and research, so I could really go in a lot of different directions. I’m just hoping for a career that I’m passionate about, and that makes me some amount of money that I’m able to live on comfortably.

I have very simple goals: I want my own room, a place where I can cook, a keyboard, and a bookshelf.

I imagine I’ll work in design consulting, hopefully. A dream company would be IDEO; they have a wide range of design consulting projects they work on, and most of them are very high impact. I’d love to work on projects that have an impact. That’s really, really important to me. I need to feel like my work has the possibility to make real change, and change people’s lives in significant ways. That’s what drives everything that I do — the capacity to enact meaningful change and a major passion for my work.

What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?

I want to create solutions that have the capacity to significantly change people’s lives or save lives. With solutions for paralysis rehabilitation, you have the potential to seriously affect and change millions of people’s lives. If we can create a piece of technology that is a low-cost way for people to reconnect their limbs to their mind, we could change millions of people’s lives, outlooks, possibilities, and access. Accessibility work is so cool to me for that reason. It’s opening doors that were previously closed for millions of people.

It’s opening doors that were previously closed for millions of people.

What are some of your non-academic hobbies/passions?

Whether I’m performing, attending performances, or working backstage on performances, anything that has to do with live performance is something that you’ll see me jumping at the opportunity to participate in.

Most recently I worked for International House events, which is an off campus event space that does everything from graduations to cultural dance performances to lecture series and more. Anything live performance you’ll see me looking to participate in. From punk shows to drag shows to musical theater for families, I will watch or perform in almost anything.

Do you feel ready to emerge into the workforce?

I’m a 19 year old graduating senior — and that was after taking time off during college. I skipped a grade in elementary school, then I tested out of high school two years early. Then, I went to community college for the two years I would have been finishing high school and transferred to UC Berkeley as a junior at 17.

Financial independence is really important to me right now. I’ve been working since I was 12, so I’ve saved a good amount of money over the years, but you know, not enough really to support going into a Master’s program or something where I’m funding out of pocket.

Entering the workforce is really important to me so I can start working towards financial independence and have my own place. I also don’t know what I would want to do for grad school. That’s the real bottom line: I’m not sure if grad school would be in neuroscience, engineering, human-centered design, or theater practice; I could go in so many different directions.

Favorite quote

“Always keep your Alfredo sauce thin.”

I don’t know where that came from, but I have it written in artwork that I used to hang on my wall. It’s silly, but it’s like, physically when you’re cooking Alfredo sauce, you want to keep it really thin when it’s in the pot because it starts to solidify once it cools down. So it’s literally “Keep your Alfredo sauce thinner than you think it needs to be” but it actually refers to your schedule and life.

I’m, as you can probably tell, someone who really jams stuff in there; if I have an interest I’m pursuing it fully. So, it was kind of a reminder to myself to chill out and keep my schedule thinner than I think it needs to be because it will thicken as it cools down and time goes on.

Connect with Holly Pilling.

Edited by Veronica Roseborough.

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