What do you do?
I am an applied mathematician interested in how the brain works. I use equations to study certain phenomena in neuroscience. Most of the time, the equations in my models are too complicated to solve analytically. So I write computer codes to solve them numerically.
My typical workflow is first reading research papers to understand the problem, and then coming up with some models. We don't usually create models out of nowhere, but rather we adopt for build from previous models from other researchers. Then, I write computer programs for my models. As I said earlier, most of my models are built from previous models; thus, most of the time, there are some written code online that I can build upon as well. However, I prefer writing code from scratch. This is a personal choice, and it varies from researchers to researchers.
Assuming the code is correct and working well, the next step is to tune parameters. This is really important because different set or combinations of parameters can yield different results. It is a really tedious job, and lots of modelers like I spend a lot of time here. Again, the same idea as before, we don't do things from scratch. Rather, we adopt and make educated guesses for our parameter choices based on what we know. This is why the reading step at the very beginning is really crucial. Often times, I find myself going back and forth between reading papers and tuning the models.
Assuming this goes well and I get desirable results, I now have to interpret the results and their implications to the brain. This step again requires lots of reading papers and talking with other researchers ( advisors, collaborators, experimentalists, etc...) . If this goes well, we can then proceed to the writing. Often time, we will bounce back and forth between interpreting the result and the computation step above for a while.
In short, my work as a researcher involves lots of iterations of reading, coding/computation, and writing.
Why did you choose this field?
When I entered grad school, I wanted to do something else ( still Math of course but a different research area). In my second year, I decided to take Neuroscience class just to check things out. I felt in love with Neuroscience. That was how I started working on Mathematical Neuroscience.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
I would say doing research in Mathematical Neuroscience. So a bit more background of why I decided to take Neuroscience in my second year of grad school. Yes, I did want to check things out. Deeper in me, I always like Neuroscience growing up. My family wanted me to go to med school, and they tried to persuade me to become either pediatrician or family doctor. I told them that I did not like med school to begin with,but if I ever decided to go to med school, I would study something related to Neuroscience. At the moment, everyone thought that I was dreaming too hard and it was not realistic. I also told them that I like Math and wanted to be a mathematician. Again the same reaction and they thought I am not practical. Thus, for a while, I thought that maybe I should do something else instead of Math or Neuroscience. I instead chose Business Management when I first entered college. Thanks for my Calculus 1 teacher, I changed my major to Math after the first semester. However, I was not thinking much about Neuroscience then. I did not know what to do with both Math and Neuroscience degree. Also, I did not want to take Organic Chemistry ( it is required for a Biology major). Thus, when I was in my second year of grad school and had to choose a research topic, I decided to give Neuroscience a try. I am glad I did :)
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because it has lots of challenging problems that require multidisciplinary approaches. In fact, my research requires knowledge in neuroscience, math, coding, and sometimes statistics. Moreover, due to the nature of STEM, I have to learn new things as I go. There are so much to learn, and I am driven by knowledge.
Best advice for next generation?
Follow your passion no matter what people around you say. Be willing to take risks ( preferably calculated risks). Practice your reading and writing skills.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
“Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” Albert Einstein