I interviewed Ethan Solomon, a PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Computational Memory Lab, where he conducts research on the electrophysiology of memory.
Alexander- What made you interested in neuroscience?
Ethan- I don't understand how anybody could notbe interested in neuroscience! Understanding the brain is really about understanding ourselves and what makes us behave the way we do. Every facet of our lives is, in some way, related to the brain, and I think it's fascinating to try to uncover the real core of our everyday experience.
Alexander- Why did you choose computational memory as your research field?
Ethan- What really drew me to this lab, and consequently memory, was one of the big projects we're working on: Can electrical stimulation delivered directly to the brain enhance memory? I've always been fascinated with the idea that artificial devices can be used to repair damaged brain function, and this seemed like the perfect possibility to explore that realm. But before we can hope to implement these kinds of devices in patients with memory problems, we need to learn a lot more about how the brain naturally forms memories. That's where all of the basic science comes into play -- teasing apart the electrical and neuronal brain mechanisms associated with memory.
Alexander- What is your role in the UPenn Computational Memory Lab?
Ethan- Like for any lab, my role as a PhD student is ultimately to make a novel contribution to our understanding of the natural world (and in the process, earn a degree). That's a very tall order, which is why PhDs usually take four or more years to complete. For me in particular, I'm very interested in the idea of connectivity and how it relates to memory function. What I mean by that is: How do different parts of the brain communicate with each other during the formation of a memory? Where do electrical signals carry information between, and what kind of information is it? We use electrocorticographic data, which is basically EEG but under the skull, to try to answer these questions. Ultimately, I hope to be able to integrate what I learn about brain connectivity with our efforts to enhance memory formation using electrical stimulation.
Alexander- What do you enjoy most about being a PhD Student?
Ethan- Definitely the flexibility to pursue exactly the things I'm interested in. In other phases of my education, I've had some choice in what I learn about, but a lot of it was chosen for me (in high school, this was especially true). Now, I can pick my research topic, and go down avenues that I find most interesting. On the other hand, I should point out that it's often very important for someone to force you to learn about things outside your comfort zone. It's an important part of becoming a well-rounded scientist.
Alexander- What do you plan to do after completing your PhD program?
Ethan- I should probably have mentioned earlier -- I am an MD/PhD student, so after I complete my PhD I will go on to finish the last 2 years of my MD (which I began before starting the PhD). From there, I will need to decide on my clinical speciality, if I choose to pursue medicine in addition to research. Either way, my long-term goal is essentially to continue doing what I'm doing right now: Learning more about the brain such that I can help develop therapeutic devices for people with neural dysfunction. I may continue down the road in memory, or I may switch to study sensation, perception, or other forms of cognition -- who knows? What is definite is that I will keep studying neuroscience, no matter what.
Alexander- What would you recommend to someone interested in pursuing a PhD in neuroscience?
Ethan- I should also have probably mentioned earlier -- my PhD is actually in bioengineering, even though I'm working in a neuroscience-focused lab. But the name of the degree program is definitely not what's important. The biggest piece of advice I can give to someone interested in getting a PhD in neuroscience (or related fields) is something specific: A lot of cutting-edge science nowadays relies on good computational skills, so don't be afraid to take math, engineering, and programming classes. Neuroscience is very interdisciplinary, so learning biology is very important too, especially if you're more interested in cellular or molecular neuroscience. But even then, the large amounts of data that are generated in modern neuroscience increasingly demand students who know how to handle it. Fortunately, it's almost never too late to start learning!