Neuroscience PhD student
“Surround yourself with mentors who specialize in different life goals from what you have. No one is an expert in everything.”
As a child, Nick was always fascinated by astronomy. After visiting his local planetarium for the first time on a field trip in preschool, Nick frequently went back with his parents and participated in a space camp there twice. He remembers the highlights of space camp were the simulations of Moon and Mars landings. Nick’s appreciation of science was noted by his parents and relatives, who encouraged it by giving him science-related books. He read them over and over again, not just because he found the content fascinating, but also because each time he read them, he would understand more. “It was like discovering something new,” he says. Nick was also extremely excited about the weather forecast. “I would make time to watch the forecast every time it came on during the local news even though the meteorologist gave the same forecast every twenty minutes or so.” Nick looked up to the meteorologist so much that he wanted to become one.
Even though Nick always knew he would have a scientific career, he never would have dreamed of studying neuroscience at Columbia University in the City of New York. Now a fifth-year PhD candidate, Nick studies how people judge whether they want more information to make a decision. This process is called instrumental information seeking. He studies this by imaging the activities of the brain of human subjects in a scanner while they perform a complex behavioral task. Then, he quantifies how much the activities in different parts of the brain vary with designs of the task and the subjects’ behaviors.
Nick did not grow up with any STEM professionals in his close family, so he did not know how to pursue a scientific career except to do well in school and go to college. “I had no clue of the intricacies and the fine-tuning of one’s resume […] that one would have to do to get a science career,” Nick says.
Nick got a taste of that the summer before he started college at Emory University. He received an email advertising Emory’s undergraduate research program open to incoming freshmen. However, the application was due the day before. Nick missed the opportunity! He wondered if all people who wanted scientific careers started doing research as early as their first year of college. He worried that missing this opportunity, and other resume-building activities that he might not have even known about, would put him at a major disadvantage. In a panic, Nick did something that absolutely required courage: he called the coordinator of the program, Dr. Leah Anderson Roesch, to ask if she could accept a late application. She said she couldn’t, but offered Nick to discuss undergraduate research opportunities together. She reassured Nick that he was not falling behind, shared her journey to getting a PhD, and connected Nick with Dr. Todd Preuss, who became Nick’s undergraduate honors thesis advisor.
“I had no clue of the intricacies and the fine-tuning of one’s resume […] that one would have to do to get a science career”
As an underrepresented minority student at Emory, Nick had the opportunity to regularly check in with an advisor, Ms. Andrea Neal. “Ms. Neal was a very persistent advisor,” Nick says, “but she was very good at making me consider options that I hadn’t considered or didn’t know of.” During Nick’s sophomore year, Ms. Neal asked him about his plans for the summer. “I told her I was applying for Emory’s summer research program. She cut me off right there.” She knew that Nick had lived in Georgia all his life and had never left the Deep South. Ms. Neal insisted that Nick apply to a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in a different region of the country, and told him that staying at Emory must be only the last resort.
“That was some of the best advice that I had received in my life,” said Nick. Not only was exploring outside of Georgia a great piece of life advice, it aligned with Nick’s burgeoning interest in cognition, e.g. how humans and animals make sense of the world and solve problems. At Emory, he was comparing the brain anatomy of humans, chimpanzees, and monkeys but there weren’t many research labs specializing in cognition. Following Ms. Neal’s advice, Nick applied to a REU in Boston and was accepted to do research with Dr. Ennio Mingolla at Northeastern University. There, Nick studied how vision works and learned to design experiments, code, and apply statistics to his analysis. These skills turned out to be essential to his current graduate thesis research. The experience was “life changing”, as it was Nick’s first time on an airplane, first time out of the South, and first time doing cognitive neuroscience.
After that, Nick’s scientific and geographic explorations took off. In another summer program the next year, he worked in Dr. Michael Shadlen’s lab at Columbia University in New York City. He investigated the brain mechanism of decision-making, which, in his words, is “the epitome of cognition.” Nick returned to the same lab the next summer. As for the city of New York, Nick calls it “a city of contrasts.” He had never imagined himself to be living here at this time of his life. At first he didn’t like New York because it is so big and all its parts seemed to move without regard to any individual, but after making social connections that anchor his life to the big city, it turned out to be “more than [he] could have ever imagined”.
“My mentors are the reason why I am where I am today,” Nick says definitively. Over the years, the most valuable lesson Nick has learned and wants to share with all young people is to “surround yourself with mentors who specialize in different life goals from what you have. No one is an expert in everything.” For example, one of Nick’s mentors is his roommate Kwame Campbell. Even though Kwame doesn’t work in science, he has been a mentor to Nick by giving advice on Nick’s project and PhD training from a different perspective. Nick also emphasizes that it is good to have mentors in science who are not your thesis advisor.
Nick thinks that academia can improve by increasing the representation of racial and sexual minorities. The bias that comes from underrepresentation of people who look like Nick is like a mosquito: you know about it and try to dodge it, but sometimes you get bitten by it. As a Black person, Nick was taught by his parents that he has to “be twice as good to get half as far.” Nick excelled in school – getting an International Baccalaureate Diploma in high school and an honors thesis in college – to make sure he would be taken seriously. But people in academia, many of whom grew up in affluent backgrounds, cannot see Nick’s achievements past his skin color. When Nick was in college, a professor once sent an email to his colleagues after seeing Nick walk through a research building that Nick worked in, “warning” them that an unfamiliar young black man had walked through and that they needed to check to see if anything had been stolen. What is frustrating is that Nick cannot avoid being racially profiled like this no matter how accomplished he is; the only solution is for people to get used to seeing scientists of color.
Nevertheless, Nick is happy to see that universities are admitting and hiring more people of color and providing anti-bias training. He is trying his hardest to stay in academia and hopes he can one day be a visible example of a Black man in science for the public and other scientists. Nick is getting his PhD soon and is excited to continue studying decision making and information processing in the brain as a postdoc. He will continue to find mentors and be a mentor to others.
by Yvonne Li