What do you do?
In my lab, we record electrical activity directly from the surface of the human brain to better understand the brain activity underlying different cognitive processes (e.g. remembering a past event, selective attention, emotional processing). Many patients with severe epilepsy get electrodes implanted directly over or inside their brains so neurologists can localize the source of their seizures. While they’re waiting in the hospital, we record their brain activity while they perform various cognitive tasks.
I specifically study how numbers and math are processed in the human brain. Once we identify brain regions of interest, we can also introduce small amounts of electrical current through the same electrodes to perturb the activity of a localized brain region (weak enough so subjects don’t feel anything), and see its effect on behaviour. So far, we’ve been able to make people worse at arithmetic by simulating a specific part of the brain that becomes selectively active during number tasks (hopefully we can eventually figure out how to make people better at math too).
Why did you choose this field?
I started college majoring in electrical engineering, but eventually decided I wanted to apply my knowledge to understanding the electrical signals in the brain. I’ve always loved observing people and trying to understand what motivates their actions. If only we could understand the brain well enough to be able to read people’s minds (I’m now relieved that we don’t understand the brain well enough to accomplish this goal).
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
For some reason, I always thought of getting a PhD as a path for people more intellectual and hardcore than myself. However, as I got more engaged in my research, I realized that grad school is just a job where you get to choose what you’re interested in working on from day to day.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love being able to choose what questions I’m interested in pursuing every day, and working with other curious, interesting, and often quirky people.
Best advice for next generation?
Don’t be afraid to talk to people who are working on something interesting but who seem intimidating. People generally love talking about their work, especially to others who find it exciting, and if they don’t, they’re not worth your time. Surround yourself by encouraging and supportive peers and mentors who are rooting for your success. Also, when you get discouraged or frustrated during the daily grind, take a step back from your work and remind yourself why you became interested in STEM in the first place.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
While I love neuroscience, sometimes I daydream about opening up a pie shop.