Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University
What would you say to aspiring scientists?
“It’s worth putting in the time and effort to find out what opportunities are out there, what careers you can get into once you’ve completed your degree and what you will need to do early on to be successful in that career.”
In a four-way intersection with heavy traffic, how do you make a left turn? While you wait for the light to change, you gather information about the cars coming from your left and right. Some move slowly, some are signaling. With enough information, your brain then chooses an action whether to make a turn or yield and wait for the next chance. Our life is filled with such decisions that are made using the same process: we accumulate evidence through our senses and act upon that evidence according to a handful of choices we have. Dr. Natalie Steinemann, a postdoc in Dr. Michael Shadlen’s lab at Columbia University, studies how this decision making process unfolds in our brain.
“I didn’t know enough about university disciplines…but when I was little, I wanted to be an inventor and an engineer sounded most like an inventor”
As a teenager, Natalie aspired to be a professional runner. She was part of the junior national team in Germany and spent most of her time on the tracks. Unfortunately, she had to let go of this dream due to a serious knee injury during a steeplechase at the end of her junior year of high school. Having had to wear crutches for 14 weeks and expecting three years to full recovery, she had to consider a different career path. “I didn’t know enough about university disciplines…but when I was little, I wanted to be an inventor and an engineer sounded most like an inventor,” she says. She applied for a joint studies program by Jade University Wilhelmshaven and Airbus, and got a Mechanical Engineering degree from the university while interning in the aviation engineering department at Airbus. However, she felt that the life of a corporate engineer was too conservative. “Unsurprisingly when you work with airplanes, you use technology that’s already proven to work,” she mentions.
Wanting to tap into a more innovative side of engineering, Natalie ventured into research. After university, she enrolled in an E.U. funded program called Erasmus Mundus, which funds master’s programs across Europe for a few selected students. She chose to study biomedical engineering, which she found much more exciting than “measuring the thread size of a screw”. During her second year of the master’s, she went to Trinity College Dublin where she got her first taste of neuroscience research. In Dr. Shane O’Mara’s lab, she studied how neurons communicate with each other during sleep. Following the finding that during sleep, the brain replays the locations that the subject had visited when awake, she was curious if the same was true for the directions that the subject had been facing. “I really enjoyed the environment…but still felt like I only knew one specific area of neuroscience.” She wanted to learn more.
“It wasn’t a completely professional decision, but I was simply not ready to go back to Germany,” she answers when asked how she chose her PhD lab. Wanting to explore different areas of neuroscience and overseas opportunities, she visited a few labs in the U.S. before applying to graduate school, and met Dr. Simon Kelly from City College of New York (CCNY). She thought both his mentorship style and science would suit her. Her journey to understand how we make decisions started from here.
In Dr. Simon Kelly’s lab, she studied what happens in the brain when we are forced to make decisions fast. Does this “urgency” affect how accurately we gather information about the world or how accurately we act upon the information? When you are in a hurry and end up almost crashing into another car in an intersection, is it because you failed to see and predict other drivers, or because your hand slipped or your foot hit the brake too slowly? To study this, she attached several metal discs to a person’s scalp and recorded brain signals that reflect different stages of the decision making process: sensory evidence, evidence accumulation, and motor preparation. She discovered that when we are in a hurry, our brain becomes better at discerning sensory evidence but makes mistakes in preparing responses. “The PhD was a great learning experience for me. The most critical thing that I learned was that your experiment and analysis should match [the resolution of] the technique you have available,” she says. Using people as subjects can be beneficial when you study high-level mental functions like decision making. “In human experiments, you can teach them extremely complicated tasks with lots of parameters.” However, you are limited by non-invasive recording techniques that only allow you to record from the scalp, where brain signals are exponentially reduced. “Your recording can only resolve up to a certain number of the parameters.” Two and a half years into Natalie’s PhD, her advisor relocated his lab to Ireland, while Natalie and a few other graduate students stayed at CUNY. While she learned to be more independent under the virtual mentorship, she craved live discussions with peers. It was then when Dr. Michael Shadlen, who was part of her PhD committee, offered her to come and visit his lab about 30 blocks north of CCNY. She slowly moved to Columbia University and started working as a postdoc in the Shadlen Lab in 2017, finally finding a scientific home.
Looking back to her long-winded path to find the topic of her interest, she adds: “if you’re a first generation academic, it can be difficult to find the right program of studies. It’s worth putting in the time and effort to find out what opportunities are out there, what careers you can get into once you’ve completed your degree and what you will need to do early on to be successful in that career.”
“if you’re a first generation academic, it can be difficult to find the right program of studies. It’s worth putting in the time and effort to find out what opportunities are out there, what careers you can get into once you’ve completed your degree and what you will need to do early on to be successful in that career.”
As a postdoc, she has started working with animals and continued researching the neuroscience behind decision making. Currently, she is studying how the brain represents the same choice that requires different motor behaviors. For example, when you yield to other drivers, you might point your hand or turn your head to the direction of traffic–different movements, same intention. Last spring, she was especially excited because she had started testing a state-of-the-art recording device that allows you to record the activity of hundreds of neurons at once. While she was getting some preliminary data with the new device, she was met with the worldwide pandemic. Like many of us, she felt anxious and overwhelmed by the horrifying speed in which the virus was changing our lives. “While I was just sitting at home, I couldn’t look away from the numbers because day by day, or just hour by hour, the numbers were growing dramatically… It was a feeling that people were dying. A couple of blocks north, a couple of blocks south… I couldn’t focus on anything,.” she says. She needed an escape. A sense of relief pervaded her when she got the university-wide email looking for volunteers who can perform COVID tests. She didn’t have any wet lab skills that would qualify her, yet she emailed back saying she will do anything else to help.
She joined a group called Columbia Researchers Against Covid-19 (CRAC). She connected teams of volunteers to different projects the Columbia Medical Center needed including setting up a database for ongoing clinical trials and cataloguing biological samples from COVID patients. She likened the experience at CRAC as something akin to an operating room where “there is a common understanding that this is clearly the most important thing right now.” She was pleasantly surprised by the many volunteers who flocked to do seemingly menial work like folding scrubs for doctors and nurses. They shared the notion that “you’re not too low or high for any of the tasks… it just needs to get done.” She worked 24/7, was on countless zoom meetings or on the phone coordinating multiple projects and people. “I’ve never worked this hard,” she says, laughing. As the COVID cases number dwindled in the City last fall, Natalie diminished her role in CRAC and started to focus more on her science. She is excited about the data collected with the new recording apparatus and is hopeful that it will paint a more complete picture of what’s going on in our brain when we make decisions.
At difficult times, Natalie has jumped on new opportunities. Whether that is a personal career transition, or a global health crisis, she is not afraid to explore new territory. When she does so, she quickly picks up new skills and puts them into practice. Natalie’s undaunted and adaptive spirit will definitely serve her well in the fast-paced world both in science and society.
by You-Nah Jeon