Anne Urai

Neuroscientist, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York

And - part of the International Brain Laboratory consortium

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Neuroscience offers a great combination of traditional STEM while also speaking to fundamental questions about the mind.

What do you do?

I study how our brains achieve the amazing feat of processing the overload of information coming in through the senses, and making useful decisions based on it. To do that, I design simple computer tasks that humans or mice play in the lab, and I measure their brain activity while they’re making a series of decisions. With these combined measurements of brain and behavior, I then build mathematical models that try to explain how the two are linked. For example, how can we infer from the kinds of choices people have made in the past what they’re likely to do next?

Why did you choose this field?

I like to joke that I ended up a cognitive neuroscientist as the result of a scheduling coincidence. Throughout high school, I couldn’t choose between focusing on science courses and humanities – luckily, my school was flexible enough to let me combine them. In my first semester in college, I signed up for a number of courses that sounded interesting, including quantum physics, modern philosophy, and cell biology. ‘Cognitive neuroscience’ was the first one I was placed into. While I didn’t know much about the brain, or cognitive science, I was immediately fascinated.

Neuroscience offers a great combination of traditional STEM while also speaking to fundamental questions about the mind: why do we experience the world as we do? Can we understand why people make certain (sometimes inexplicable) decisions, even with clear information? It’s fascinating to think and speculate about the ways in which this clump of meat in our skull makes us who we are. But who knows – if the first course that semester had been chemistry or genetics, I might have been doing research in a different field now.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

As a student I was often very nervous approaching people I looked up to, and I tried to pretend I understood everything they said. I’ve now learned that hiding the things you don’t know makes it really hard to learn about them.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I currently work on a large collaborative project with researchers from across the world, all teaming up to achieve the same goal of trying to understand how the brain makes decisions.

Coordinating and agreeing how to best do things is challenging, and can sometimes be frustrating – but it’s also inspiring to spend my time with people who are just as excited about the big questions as I am.

Best advice for next generation?

There are many ways to be a scientist. Don't let anyone tell you there is a single path to follow. Some people can dive into a single research question their whole career, some design smart tools and new methods that others can use, and some have a broad overview of what big questions are being tackled and how they fit together.

Find what you are (and are not) good at, and work together with people who have complementary strengths. Most importantly, find those things you enjoy doing – have some fun while doing science!

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

When I really want to concentrate on reading something, I print it out and take a bath.

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