Answers to submitted questions will be answered and updated hopefully on a weekly basis. Sharlene will try her hardest to answer in a timely manner. Some responses may answer multiple questions that we grouped together. Check out what other people have asked first! Your burning question might have already been answered! ---Science Penpals
What did you study for your undergrad? What was your education/training after your undergrad?
Asked by Jessica
I studied computer engineering in undergrad, and then I went on to study bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
There are specialties within bioengineering, so the one I was in is called “neural engineering”, which includes any combination of neuroscience and engineering- from designing tools to measure brain activity to studying how the cells in your brain respond to the tools to using the tools, like I do, for rehabilitation purposes.
Grad school was critical- it let me shift my focus from general computer engineering- which was a really useful thing to study and a very fun field in its own right- to neuroscience.
Two very different fields, but there were robots in both:
The first robot I built from scratch, my senior year of undergrad: ARecS, the Autonomous Recyclables Sorter. After this, I went into neuro engineering where I got to use much fancier robotic arms like this one, the Modular Prosthetic Limb.
Depending on the day, I’m either:
- Thinking about how to answer a scientific question in my field
- Building an experiment to test my hypothesis about the question
- Running the experiment to collect data to support or disprove my hypothesis, or
- Analyzing and sharing the results.
For me, experiments are about 4 hours long and include teaching our participant the task I want him to do and making sure he understands the rules and is doing the task as I expect. A lot of times, we come up with experiments and when we give them to people, they find a solution we didn’t expect, so we have to rethink how to pose the question. A lot of the times, these new solutions give us new things to think about, which is really helpful even though it’s unexpected. So even though I might have a day that I'm "running an experiment", I'm also "thinking about how to answer a scientific question in my field" at the same time and thinking about how to build an experiment that can test what I am thinking about.
What is your day-to-day like?
Asked by Jessica
Above, this is another robot I've used- I'm
teaching my participant to do a new task with it.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
Asked by Jessica
I love getting to study how the brain works! Also, in this sort of job, you get to explore and learn as much as you want about the areas that interest you.
However nothing in life is free, so the worst part is having to get money to study the exact thing you want to do. It can also be challenging and sometimes frustrating to share your results. Other scientists need to judge your work for credibility before it gets shared with the field. This is critical to make sure people are doing good, ethical science and sharing accurate results, but the process also can feel a bit out of your control- if one person doesn’t like or understand your result, they can make it very hard for you to share your work with the broader community.
Also, it’s very uncommon for people to share things that *didn’t* work, so one thing that could be improved is this bias against sharing negative outcomes. If we shared what didn’t work, we might save other scientists a lot of time rather than having lots of people try the same thing that doesn’t work.
Sharing your work is also fun, because it's a chance for the public to see what scientists are doing- one of my papers got signed by the president when he saw my work in action. Over 175 news outlets were talking about my science!!
I'm in the back, this was probably my best science day ever!!
In your opinion, what characteristics are needed for someone to be successful in your position?
How can we build these characteristics in high school?
Asked by Jessica
The most useful characteristic is probably creativity and confidence to explore your questions.
In school, it would be great to encourage critical thinking and exploring questions (in any topic) that seem a little bit ‘out there’ or wild. Thinking through the different ways to answer crazy questions, rather than just saying “that can’t be done”/”that’s useless” is a great way to practice thinking through big questions and breaking them down into testable things.
I’m obviously biased, but I also think any training in engineering is very beneficial for similar reasons- you can take a really big issue and break it down into smaller, fixable problems.
The best thing you can do in high school/undergrad is to find opportunities for research early- that will definitely help you get a feel for these types of jobs! Science fair projects are also good way to start, especially if you reach out to scientists who you find are in the same field as your project.
What kind of social mobility is available for you in your position?
Asked by Jessica
Science is for anyone!
Different backgrounds might make it easier to get started in research, but if you are curious about it, you can definitely advance from anywhere to being in charge of your own lab. Personally, I came from a rural school district that was very poor and not very good at standardized tests, but I had teachers who showed us the fun sides of science and engineering through competitions like Science Olympiad and BEST Robotics and, more than the classes I was in, this made me consider engineering and from there I just followed things that interested me. I picked “computer engineering” without knowing what the word “programing” meant, but I was interested in how to build and integrate technology so I started down the computer engineering path and it was a great fit for me. THen, when I wanted to study brain-computer interface, I (literally) just Googled “brain computer interface” or “neural engineering”/”neuroengineering” until I found schools with those specialties, and applied! I didn’t really know what I was doing when I applied- I hadn’t worked in a lab in undergrad, which is what most of my grad school peers did- but it worked out. I often find that my underrepresented background gives me a unique perspective and helps me find solutions others may not have found. And that teacher that got me interested in science all those years ago invited me to talk to students at the Global Conference on Educational Robotics- also known as the Botball championship- and it was great to share my path with students who might feel like they come from equally underrepresented backgrounds.
What I think is key is to know that these jobs exist- I didn’t know what grad school was until I was almost done with undergrad, but if I had known earlier, it might have made it easier to find graduate schools and I would have had the resources to make better applications. Since you’re here asking this and reading the answers, you’re already on the right track!
This gray line shows the path I took from my hometown in New Mexico to the lab I work in at Stanford, the Neural Prosthetics Translational Laboratory. I went to San Antonio, TX for college- at a tiny school that is not really known for engineering, and then onto Pittsburgh, PA for my PhD, which was amazing. It's not a typical path but it definitely gives me a different perspective on hard problems!
I wonder if there are any programs or perhaps simply interest in reverse engineering a brain from a cognitive perspective?
Asked by Ed, an undergraduate from Kentucky
Optical illusions are a great example of how we can trick a system because we know how it works- can you see the gray dots at the intersections of the white lines? They aren't actually there! Try covering parts of the image and see the gray dots disappear. If we can understand other brain systems as well as we understand vision, we can do a better job of fixing them when they aren't working as they should be
Movement and Cognition are Super Linked
Great question! There are programs and there is interest! Many techniques that we use in motor neuroscience are tied to the cognitive elements of movement- attention, decision-making, and generalization are just a few cognitive elements of movement that need to work together to perform movement tasks. By looking at movement, you can get an idea of how these cognitive processes are working. A good example of this is that when you ask a study participant to do something hard, like identify if an image has more green than red, they move more quickly to respond when they are confident in their answer.
For things that are hard to “read out”, like cognitive state, you can find movement markers- which are easier to observe- to get an idea of how the cognitive system is functioning. This can generalize to things such as ADHD, OCD, and depression, just to name a few. This area is another great intersection of medicine, science and engineering. For example, some studies found that using clinical tools that are already cleared for medical use for movement disorders, such as deep brain stimulators, can be used to help with mental disorders. While deep brain stimulators were made for treating essential tremor, a motor problem commonly seen in Parkinson’s Disease patients, they found that the same stimulator in a different part of the brain helped some patients who had extreme cases of depression or OCD.
All of these are examples of how engineering and science can work together to solve bigger problems. Once we know how a part of the brain works well enough, we can identify when it’s not working as it should and fix it. For example, think of optical illusions- we can make optical illusions work because we understand how the visual system processes what we see, so we can trick it. For my science, we are trying to figure out exactly how the motor system works so we can bridge broken parts of the nervous system and restore the ability to move prosthetic devices. For cognitive disorders, if we can identify what exactly is going wrong, we have a better idea of how to fix it, possibly using tools that were developed for different regions of the brain that are easier to observe.
How does the brain of a physically disabled person look like compared to someone who can move freely?
Asked by Suhani, a high school student from North Carolina
Are human brains like animal brains?
This is a really hard scientific question, and one we’re always working on! Almost everything we know that compares a neuro-normal brain to a brain from someone who has a disability we know from studies on animals. Animals who were born blind, for example, can be compared to those who were born not blind. However, your question is even harder and more interesting than that- if we take someone who used to be able to move and now cannot, how does it compare? We have some ideas (again from animals, because they have accidents too and can lose functions), but human brains are just different enough that we still don’t have a complete answer. What we can do is study large groups of people using things like fMRI that don’t require brain surgery. That way, we can compare lots of healthy and impaired individuals. On these large scales, in studies of adults who have lost a finger, it appears that there is very little change compared to those who have intact fingers. This is a very recent finding, and some people want to see more studies backing this up, because what we learned from animal studies is that brains should change.
Now that groups like mine are studying human brains really invasively- single groups of neurons at a time instead of bigger areas of brain- are finding that everyone’s brains are really different and respond to injuries differently. Participants were injured at different ages, from 18 to over 50 years old, but we don’t really see any patterns of brain changes. In fact, it doesn’t actually change too much on the motor side! As one scientist I really like likes to say, “from the brain’s perspective, spinal cord injury is not a motor problem, but a sensory one!”. She’s very smart but that sounds crazy, right? We know spinal cord injury is a motor disorder, but the brain can keep sending “move!” signals, they just don’t make it past the injury. So it’s maybe not too surprising that the motor part of the brain doesn’t change too much. However, the senses of touch (being able to perceive heat, contact, force, vibration, proprioception, all the things we ‘feel’) are also lost, so the brain areas that receive this input in a healthy individual might be a little different, depending on things like what sorts of movements and sensations were spared in the injury and when they were injured.
I hope that helps- I can’t tell you a for sure answer because science doesn’t know yet! If this is a question that intrigues you, there are lots of scientists who study this that you could look into researching with when you get to college. It’s never too soon to start looking for research opportunities- and never too late to start! I started late and wish I had known to look for research opportunities earlier, because I love doing engineering and science research.
This surprising study showed that, following amputation, there is no change to the organization of the body parts in the brain (the gray background) which you can see by the purple and red dots overlapping. Old animal studies suggested we'd see big differences.
From Tamar R. Makin, Jan Scholz, David Henderson Slater, Heidi Johansen-Berg, Irene Tracey, Reassessing cortical reorganization in the primary sensorimotor cortex following arm amputation, Brain, Volume 138, Issue 8, August 2015, Pages 2140–2146, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awv161
How did you decide between academic and industry research?
Asked by Elora, an undergraduate from Washington
This is a fun question! When I decided to try academia, I was doing industry research as a computer engineer. It was fun, but this field of brain-computer interface felt like what I wanted to work on, and it only existed in academia- which I had never heard of! So, I learned about grad school very quickly and went the academia route. Something really fun about spending a few years in academic research is seeing interest in brain-computer interface grow in industry. Now, as a postdoc, I get to look at my next job and decide between studying what I like in industry or academia- they each have strengths and weaknesses. Academia, in general, allows you to follow your curiousity a little more, whereas in industry, you’re studying something for a company, rather than only following your interests.
It’s one of the hardest decisions in science life to decide if you want to stay in academia or go to industry, so thanks for the great question!
Some examples of industry doing the same types of research I'm doing in academia