Computational brain science summer program at Brown opens up a world of science

Through a nine-week program organized by the Carney Institute for Brain Science, undergraduates from multiple universities learn the building blocks of computational brain science, a growing and increasingly important field.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Selene Schiavone-Chamorro, a rising sophomore studying biology at the University of Puerto Rico, has long been intrigued by the mysteries of the human mind. When she was offered a research opportunity in computational brain science at Brown University this summer, she jumped at the chance to learn how mathematical tools and theories can be used to better understand brain function.

Schiavone-Chamorro is conducting research on the cognitive mechanisms behind gambling addictions. She is using the programming platform MATLAB, a tool well-known to computational neuroscientists, to track the behaviors of compulsive gamblers. The goal, she said, is to determine if individuals with gambling disorders are influenced by the illusion of control and the amount of reward they receive.

“I have been using everything I learned in the MATLAB bootcamp during the first two weeks of the program to analyze the data we have gathered from a slot machine experiment,” said Schiavone-Chamorro, who hopes to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. degree in neuroscience after completing her bachelor’s degree. “We are now developing a series of graphs to see if there is correlation between certain elements, such as in a participant’s decision to gamble or not to gamble, and their bet size.”

Schiavone-Chamorro is one of 10 students participating in Carney Summer Scholars, a nine-week program organized by Brown’s Carney Institute for Brain Science that offers hands-on training in computational brain science to students from historically underrepresented groups who are enrolled at universities across the United States. Students are recruited through the Summer Research Early Identification Program at the Brown-based Leadership Alliance and placed in computational laboratories at Brown.

Carney Institute director Diane Lipscombe said the summer scholars program emphasizes the importance of engaging a diverse and talented cohort of students in research.

“Innovation and discovery depend on recruiting motivated students with high potential,” Lipscombe said. “The emerging field of computational brain science combines two very exciting disciplines and both attract incredibly talented students. Through the summer program, students can learn the science behind developing testable hypotheses about brain function in health and disease.”

“ I was introduced to fields of science that I had never even heard of. That really opened my mind to thinking about all of the different possible routes that science could lead to. ”

Kyla Mayo 2021 Carney Summer Scholar

For Brown, the program builds on a growing focus on computational brain science, which seeks to understand the functions of the brain at all levels — from cells to cognition — using principles from physics, mathematics, engineering, computer science, biology, cognitive science and psychology. Last year, Brown launched the Center for Computational Brain Science within the Carney Institute to harness the University’s world-class expertise in computational modeling, computer science, cognition and systems neuroscience. And a portion of a $25 million gift to Brown is supporting research in the center, which creates collaborations between researchers and brings computational brain science innovations to clinical applications and commercialization.

Crunching the numbers of computational brain science

The Carney Summer Scholars program allows students to gain direct experience in computational brain science research — from the challenge of troubleshooting code and formalizing equations to the satisfaction of understanding a model by building and playing with it.

“Conducting research requires a special combination of curiosity, persistence and resilience,” said Kristin Webster, the program organizer and a research development and support specialist at the institute. “We give our students the opportunity to become comfortable asking questions, to understand that research isn't a linear or predictable process, and to see how collaborative science can be.”

Computational approaches to understanding brain function are rapidly emerging as essential skills for successful research careers, Webster said. However, women and people from historically underrepresented groups are less common in computational fields.

“We saw this as an area where we could make a big impact and bring more diversity to computational brain science,” she said.

Summer scholars have the opportunity to learn from accomplished experts in the field, including Michael Frank, director of the Center for Computational Brain Science and the 2021 recipient of the National Academy of Sciences’ Troland Award for early-career researchers; Stephanie Jones, associate professor of neuroscience who received the BIOMAG2020 Mid-Career Award for her transformative contributions to the field of biomagnetism research; Frederike Petzschner, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and co-director of the Carney Brainstorm Program, which accelerates the translation of computational brain science to clinical applications and commercialization; and Matthew Nassar, assistant professor of neuroscience whose research focuses on understanding how the brain processes information to achieve complex and adaptive behaviors.

According to Nassar, the program serves as a vehicle to expand the pool of talent that will fuel innovation down the road.

“I didn't have exposure to computational brain science as an undergraduate, nor did any of our summer trainees,” Nassar said. “The program provides a channel for individuals who may not have local research opportunities in computational neuroscience to try it out.”

The program was launched in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and has to date been held virtually. Hallmarks of the program include peer mentoring and weekly sessions led by Carney-affiliated faculty, staff and graduate students on topics such as professional development, scientific skills, journal clubs and preparation to succeed in graduate school. A feature of this year’s program is a professionally produced series of virtual lessons featuring Brown faculty members explaining cutting-edge research techniques in brain science. Topics include CRISPR and gene editing, transcranial magnetic stimulation, optogenetics and bioluminescence, genomics, artificial intelligence and two-photon microscopy. Students watch videos independently and then engage in follow-up Zoom discussions wit­h the featured faculty members.

“ It feels good to be surrounded by people who are passionate about learning and willing to help you out when you don’t understand something and support you along the way. ”

Selene Schiavone-Chamorro 2021 Carney Summer Scholar

Student Kyla Mayo said these research technique videos have been her favorite part of the program.

“I was fascinated with how non-invasive yet effective transcranial magnetic stimulation could be for a patient,” said Mayo, a student at Dillard University in New Orleans majoring in biology pre-med with a minor in chemistry. “It was interesting to learn that TMS could be used to treat depression and, hopefully one day in the future, many other mental illnesses.”

Boosting connectivity between brain scientists

In addition to gaining hands-on research experience through the Carney Summer Scholars program, students form valuable professional connections with Brown neuroscientists, including graduate student mentors and faculty members and their research teams, as well as the Leadership Alliance student and alumni network.

“My favorite part about this program so far has been getting to know other people with similar interests as me,” Schiavone-Chamorro said. “At the beginning of the program, I thought I would be doing research individually, but I got to take the MATLAB bootcamp via Zoom with a small group of students who have made this program feel less virtual. It feels good to be surrounded by people who are passionate about learning and willing to help you out when you don’t understand something and support you along the way.”

For Mayo, the program has been a transformative experience. She is investigating how to optimize working memory, a cognitive system that has a limited capacity to hold information but is important for reasoning, decision-making and behavior. Working with Nassar, Mayo is using MATLAB to store and organize data and to create models to better interpret and explain the data. She said learning to code using MATLAB has been the most challenging yet rewarding part of the program.

“This program has pushed me outside of my comfort zone, while also introducing me to a variety of people and skills,” Mayo said. “We were taught how to code in two weeks and that was really intense. I was learning something completely foreign to me at a very fast pace, and I often felt very overwhelmed, confused and honestly behind everyone else. But looking back at those first two weeks now, they taught me how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Mayo said that her experience confirmed her aspirations to pursue an M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. after completing her undergraduate studies.

“Being pushed out of my comfort zone showed me that I am capable of anything,” Mayo said. “I was introduced to fields of science that I had never even heard of. That really opened my mind to thinking about all of the different possible routes that science could lead to. This experience ultimately helped me realize that I have a plethora of opportunities to pursue, and pursuing my M.D. or M.D./Ph.D. is one of them.”

According to Lipscombe, summer research programs are often the first time students can experience what it’s like to conduct scientific research in a lab, as opposed to reading about experiments and discoveries through their studies. It’s also when students decide that they want to pursue a career in science, she said.

“Research is something that you just have to experience to understand the thrill and unpredictability of discovery,” Lipscombe said. “For many students, the summer research at Brown is the first time they see firsthand what they have learned in class. It's so fabulous for us as educators to watch students' scientific worlds expand and to see the transformation in their understanding take place over just a few weeks.”