There are so many things that happened that seemed random when they did happen, but all helped push me in the neuroscience direction.
My mom brought me to an educational event when I was very young and they gave us rulers, pencils, and paper. They told us to measure soda cans, books, and even our own pencils and write down how long and wide things were. That experience meant a lot to me because it introduced me to the fact that there was a method people could use to compare things: the ruler and units of measurement. This extrapolated itself into an appreciation for “objective” measurement, which predisposed me to be interested in science in general.
When I was a couple days shy of turning 10 years old, my mom brought me to her workplace for “take your kid to work day” at the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Loads of kids were there and the people there put together a kind of science and medicine tour that showed us all kinds of things. The two things I remember most clearly from that experience were 1) inserting a butterfly needle into the fake vein of a fake arm that had fake blood running through it (very cool) 2) getting to see and touch (!) a slice of real human brain that was under saran wrap. I wouldn’t shut up about touching a brain for a month! Maybe if it was any other organ I would have calmed down sooner, but since it was the brain, the thing that makes you, you, just made me extremely excited.
We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so it was significant that my dad brought me to a place in Baltimore, MD called “The Book Thing” which had two rules: “1) Bring as many books as you want, 2) Take as many books as you want”. I found a textbook in psychology there and paged through it. What fascinated me was a small section of the book that had self-portrait illustrations drawn by someone at various stages of being under the influence of LSD. That blew my mind. It made me form the basic questions “How do we understand how we think?” and “How does the brain determine how we perceive reality?” and connected the idea of modified perception to manipulations of the brain (through a drug).
In highschool I entered a gifted and talented program called the Ingenuity Project, which had a major research component as part of its pedagogy. There I was asked for probably the first time in public school “What do you want to learn more about?” It challenged me to think inward about what I wanted to know, and I said I wanted to learn more about the brain because “It determines how we perceive reality”. This moment of self-realization set me on a path to actually go and find out more about the brain. I checked out a book in the library on the history of the study of the brain and learned how desires to understand the mind and the soul unlocked understanding of the cardiac system and other leaps in knowledge of western medicine. I then was given the opportunity in my Science, Technology, and Society (STS) class to come up with a new technology and explain how it can have an impact. I turned into a baby transhumanist because I chose BMI (neuroprosthetics and exocortices). Elon Musk would have been proud of me. Through that I learned the term neuroscience (and how to spell it correctly!) and learned that it was a whole discipline around learning about the brain. I was hooked.
I want to take the time to say that my environment largely interacted with my own proclivity to ask “how” and “why”. Without special efforts by my parents and community I would not have chosen this path. I want to also emphasize the importance of giving students the chance to look within themselves to figure out what they are interested in. Creating a space for that kind of self-reflection in children could set them on great paths!
Right now I am a computational and theoretical neuroscientist focused on understanding dendritic computation by using methodology and principles from the deep learning field. I like it a lot! It’s a lot different from what I used to do, but some of it is the same. When I used to work in cellular/molecular lab settings, one of my favorite aspects was learning how to “pipette”, moving small amounts of liquid into other small amounts of liquid, all while keeping to sterile technique. It was a technique I took very seriously and tried to master. Now that I’ve exchanged the bench for a desk and pipette for a computer, I also take learning coding techniques seriously. But one way it’s a very different experience for me is that I have to think a lot more about the logic motivating what I’m doing, beyond “discovering something new”. This may be due to the difference between the responsibilities I had in undergrad vs the ones I have in grad school. In grad school, I know now that I’m responsible for thinking about the theory behind my work and how I’m challenging or expanding what is already known. This is very fulfilling.
Oh boy I have written a lot about challenges in grad school that I have faced. I’ve written explicitly about coming to computational research from a wet-lab background, and the qualifying exam and fellowships. I’m starting my 4th year of PhD now, which might bring even more challenges that I’ll write about. Stay tuned for my reflections on that.
I love giving advice and it challenges me to reflect on my experiences and what I’ve learned. In the interest of getting people to have a better time entering a field like neuroscience, my litany of advice is as follows: Be kind, patient, and compassionate toward yourself. You are on your own path, no one else’s. Don’t compare yourself to others, focus on what you are getting out of what you study. Focus on the things you think are interesting, not what you think everyone else wants you to be interested in. Reflect on, honestly and even inconclusively, why you are choosing to do science and neuroscience. Getting into graduate school is but a stepping stone in the process by which you begin your career, not a destination. Honest reflections of what you want to get out of your training are necessary for choosing your next steps and honing your focus toward reaching your training goals.
I used to only have the goal of becoming a professor of Neuroscience. Now that I’ve faced the very challenging task of doing new research, I’ve had to grow and think about what I actually wanted out of my career. The horizon after grad school keeps changing as I learn more about myself in my training. I know I want to teach - it’s just a matter of deciding who I teach that determines who I should talk to to get there. I care a good deal about neuroscience, AI, and their intersections with the public sphere (such as ethics). I care about neural computation and determining what neurons are capable of. I care about mentorship and helping people get to where they want to go. If all of that means staying in academia and positioning myself to do all of these things then perhaps that’s what I should do! But of course, I’m learning all the time that people do other things. As I learn about the career possibilities and learn more about my needs as a person, I’ll make my decision and push for that whole-heartedly!
Ilenna is a PhD candidate at UPenn. Before that she worked as a technician on epigenetic psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, USA