Over its 10 years, the CNC training program funded 16 graduate students and over 30 undergraduate students, providing research experience and education for aspiring computational neuroscientists. With the NIH-funded program having completed its cycle in 2020, we look back on the impact of the training program on its students.

Diving into computational neuroscience

Computational neuroscience, to undergraduate Chloe Winston, had long “looked interesting [and] sounded interesting.” But before applying to the CNC’s training program, she had “never before had the opportunity to actually dive in and see what it is really like” to do research in this area. Winston, who is currently in her final year of college at UW and is double-majoring in Neuroscience and Computer Science, continues to work with her mentors from her time in the training program, CNC co-director Eric Shea-Brown and Stefan Mihalas of the Allen Institute. Her project investigates how the diversity of neurons plays into the complex computations the brain is required to do on a daily basis. Winston and her mentors hope to apply these findings to artificial neural networks to see if incorporating a more biologically realistic neural model into these networks can improve their efficacy. “I think that this program has been really influential in me … finding out this is something I really enjoy,” says Winston. She hopes to continue doing research long-term as a physician-scientist.

Anna Bowen also had an interest in computational neuroscience that the training program allowed her to pursue. When entering a new scientific field, she says, “there’s usually feelings of being slightly intimidated by the concepts or the vocabulary and maybe not feeling like you have the knowledge to communicate very well.” The training program was able to ease these feelings by providing structure and community as she entered into the computational neuroscience field. “It probably made it a lot more fun and approachable than it would have been otherwise,” Bowen says. Her undergraduate work with Richard Palmiter examined a single group of neurons in the mouse hindbrain that respond to frightening stimuli from multiple sensory modalities, such as touch and satiety. This, she says, was “a nice introduction to behavioral neuroscience,” a field that she pursued throughout her time in the undergraduate and graduate neuroscience programs at UW as well as in her current position as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of CNC experimental affiliate Nick Steinmetz.

Not only does the training program lower the intimidation factor in starting research, it can also lower financial barriers. A first-generation science student, Bowen says that having a paid position was the only way she could get research experience. “I think something that’s really unappreciated when you’re not coming from a lower income level is that you actually have to think about how you’re going to pay for your food and your lodging,” Bowen says. “Everyone expects you to volunteer in science…it’s just not possible unless you don’t sleep or something. So, being able to do science and learn new things and meet people and get paid at the same time was really great.”

Building Skills

2019 graduate Sarah Cooper says that her time in the undergraduate training program taught her how to program as a scientist – a skill that she uses often in her current role as a PhD student in Vanderbilt University’s Neuroscience program. “I hadn’t fully comprehended just how pervasive [coding] would be…[as] a grad student…Coding is just part of what you do,” says Cooper. “I appreciated that this training program was an introduction for me to actually being able to code as a scientist.” At UW, Cooper worked with (now retired) CNC faculty Howard Chizek and patients who had deep brain stimulators implanted to help treat their essential tremor, investigating a mysterious phenomenon where the patients’ tremor briefly got much worse after stimulation was turned off. Now, her research in the lab of Carrie Hoffman focuses on the neural circuits underlying category learning in monkeys. Although her research subjects have changed drastically (the monkeys, she notes, “don’t bring baked goods to recording sessions” like some of the patients she worked with did), coding is a constant. “You have to do all of this data analysis and that doesn’t just happen, you have to code all of that,” Cooper says. Having programming experience from the coursework and research experience that she completed as part of the CNC’s training program, she believes, made the transition to graduate school much easier.

In addition to on-the-job coding experience in research labs, the CNC’s training program also allowed undergraduates outside of the Neuroscience major to take classes that would otherwise have been difficult to get into. Physics major Elliot Abe, now in his fifth year of a PhD in Biology at the University of Oregon, cites these classes as key for his entry into computational neuroscience, still his research area of interest. “Coming from physics,” he says, “I [had taken] one biology class, so I wasn’t really well-versed with the biological side of neuroscience.” These classes and his work with CNC co-director Adrienne Fairhall and experimental affiliate David Perkel, studying reinforcement learning in zebra finches allowed him to get the breadth and depth of knowledge he needed to pursue a PhD in the life sciences. “That was immensely useful for preparing me for graduate school,” he says, “That was a really positive experience…being able to step into the world of computational neuroscience.”

Making connections

Abe and recent UW graduate Max Wiel both say that the CNC’s training program allowed them to make connections not only between their own interests, but also with scientists across the field. Wiel, a Bioengineering major, worked with CNC faculty Azadeh Yazdan to develop a glove-like device that can independently stimulate the fingers of a monkey to help Yazdan’s lab study sensory rehabilitation after stroke. Now, he does “something totally different” – he works at the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation modeling public health data – but he traces his interest in data analysis back to his time in the training program. Computational neuroscience research, he says, “exposed me to a lot of work in data science…which I really enjoyed,” inspiring him to pursue a Masters in Information Management. Wiel is passionate about public health outcome inequality, climate change, and social justice, and is excited to be using the skills he learned working in computational neuroscience in these areas.

On top of this, he says, the training program allowed him to make valuable connections with scientists who use data in different ways using a variety of techniques, a sentiment echoed by Abe. “I got the opportunity to meet a lot of people that I otherwise wouldn’t have,” Abe says. Between their research mentors, course instructors, and other faculty they connected with through the CNC, both Abe and Wiel got to know and learn from researchers throughout the field of computational and theoretical neuroscience.

For Neuroscience graduate student Scott Sterrett, a trainee in the CNC’s graduate program during the 2020-2021 school year after transferring to UW, the connections and collaborations among CNC faculty was an exciting change. “It’s a well-known barrier that experimental people put a lot of effort to get the data that they get and they want to analyze it in-house and they don’t want some computational person to swoop in,” Sterrett says, but at the CNC, “there’s a much more open sense of collaboration between experimentalists and computational people.” Sterrett, who is co-advised by Adrienne Fairhall and experimental affiliate David Gire, studies the behavior and neurophysiology of mice as they navigate around an open arena looking for the source of an odor. His work marries traditional neuroscience techniques, such as ethology (the study of behavior), with modern computational techniques, such as machine vision, in an attempt to describe the “language of behavior” observed as the mice follow a scent. Because his project hinges on both experimental and computational techniques, the CNC training program seemed like an optimal way to fund and motivate his research – “it felt like a nice bridge, both for myself and for the project,” he says.

Sterrett also appreciates the opportunities the CNC gives him to collaborate with other graduate students. Despite working on diverse projects, the graduate students in the CNC community frequently attack problems together. “This has been an interesting space where computation and math are the shared language,” Sterrett says. TA-ing an undergraduate journal club course with his fellow CNC trainees gave him the opportunity to meet other students, some of whom he still works with regularly. His time in the training program also led him to attend the CNC’s 2020 Neural Computation and Engineering Connection conference and get involved in AccelNet, allowing him to develop new collaborations.

Continuing opportunities with the CNC

Although the training program has ended, there are still many ways for students to get involved in the CNC. Sterrett says that the loosening of Covid-related restrictions has sparked a reinvigorated spirit of collaboration at the Center, allowing him to meet and have conversations with collaborators and other graduate students, whom he’d formerly only met over Zoom, much more regularly. He also highly recommends that students partake in the Center’s espresso machine which, he says, produces “café-quality lattes.”

Undergraduates can join the Minor in Neural Computation and Engineering for a structured introduction to the field. Graduate students in the biological, physical, computational, mathematical, chemical, engineering, or quantitative social sciences can complete coursework and a research capstone presentation to earn the Graduate Certificate in Neural Computation and Engineering. The CNC regularly hosts talks (you can find the schedule here) and, with the Allen Institute, runs the Summer Workshop on the Dynamic Brain (applications for the summer 2022 course are open now thru February 1st). For more information and updates on the CNC’s activities, follow us on Twitter or Facebook.