Scientist in the Spotlight. Daniel T.

SPOTLIGHT SEPT

Who is ready to learn about another scientist? Me too! Today’s scientist studies something that I always wish I knew more about – the brain! This organ mesmerizes me and any chance I can take to learn a little bit more I will take. That’s why I loved today’s scientists Instagram and just had to follow along to learn about his journey and the side projects. His research looks at large-scale information flow in the brain and Instagram is full of beautiful images of brains and brain cells which you should definitely check out, but firstย let me introduce you to the wonderful Daniel T.

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Welcome to Soph talks science Daniel! So, tell us a little bit more about you.

Daniel: Hi Soph! First, thank you for reaching out! I love your Instagram account. Iโ€™m so happy seeing other scientists on the platform, showing us what you do and why you do it!

A super quick biographical sketch: I grew up in Los Angeles in a big Israeli family, as the second of four boys. When I was in high school, I thought I was terrible at science, and wanted to be a writer. But along the way, I discovered and fell in love with scienceโ€™s ability to show us how the universe works, and I havenโ€™t looked back since!

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So, what was it that sparked your interest in neuroscience and the brain?

Daniel: Iโ€™ve been thinking about the nature of experience for as long as I can remember! One night, when I was nine, I thought to myself, โ€œWhat if reports of near-death experiences are just chemical events in peopleโ€™s brains?โ€ Thinking about the implications of that thought made me cry, and I remember my mom being at a loss for what to say!

Thoughts like that came back with a vengeance when I took anatomy and physiology in high school. When I started to learn about the basics of how neurons work, I was astounded that a mind could somehow emerge from physical processes at all. But, at the time, the possibility that I could be a scientist didnโ€™t even occur to me – I didnโ€™t know any scientists, I couldnโ€™t name any scientists, and I always thought of scientists as cold, removed, and nameless people who didnโ€™t really understand how the world works. All of that changed when I read Carl Saganโ€™s Cosmos. Saganโ€™s beautiful words showed me that scientists are passionate, caring people, and that they do what they do because theyโ€™re moved by the poetry of the universe and because they want to help others. Reading Saganโ€™s Cosmos is also what inspired me to communicate science: I wanted to pay forward what Sagan gave me. So I hope Iโ€™ve managed to convince at least one person that science is beautiful, that they can be scientists if they want, and that the truths revealed by science belong to everyone!

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What is your favourite brain fact?

Daniel: There are so many cool brain facts! But if I had to pick just one, it would be the fact that networks of cells can process information at all!

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What is your research all about then?

Daniel: Given my favorite brain fact, itโ€™s probably no surprise that I research how large brain networks process information. Thereโ€™s been incredible work over the last 100 years on how single brain cells encode information, and in the last few decades thereโ€™s been a lot of progress on how networks of single cells encode information (though we still have a long way to go on that front). But, despite this progress on the microscopic level, weโ€™re almost totally in the dark when it comes to how whole brain regions share information with each other. To try to make some progress on this problem, I use nonlinear dynamics, information theory, and graph theory to understand how large brain networks and large-scale electric currents carry information. Since weโ€™re still developing the theoretical tools to tackle this problem, I straddle the worlds of theory and experiment – and thatโ€™s my happy place!

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Do you think we will ever be able to create consciousness for AI for example?

Daniel: I have no idea, since we barely understand consciousness – or what consciousness even is! That said, we do know that consciousness depends, in some way, on physical processes in the brain. So, if we can recreate those physical processes (whatever they are) in a machine, then Iโ€™m pretty sure that machine would be conscious!

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What is a day in the life of a scientist life for you?

Daniel: It varies so much! But, when Iโ€™m in research mode, my day is usually spent on my laptop at home, at a cafe, or in lab. My day also usually includes a conversation (via in-person meetings, Skype calls, or text) with other scientists all over the world – science is a collective endeavor!

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Talking about your Skype calls with other scientists, I often see that you are catching up with some of your fellow researchers about the ‘Scientists who Selfie’ project. Can you tell us more about that?

Daniel: The Scientists Who Selfie project is the brainchild of Paige Jarreau, who researches the science of science communication. Paige was interested in โ€œselfiesโ€ taken by scientists in their labs or in their fieldwork – exactly the sort of content that you, I, and others like Sammantha Yammine, Imogene Cancellare, and Aaron Pomerantz have been posting on Instagram. Paige hypothesized that this sort of content could be a powerful tool to show people the human side of science and fight stereotypes that scientists are cold and untrustworthy (which in turn feeds into public distrust of science). Together with Sammantha Yammine, Imogene Cancellare, and Becky Carmichael, Paige and I designed a psychology experiment to test that hypothesis. Our crowd-funding campaign to fund the experiment was a success, and seems to have launched a whole social media movement of โ€œscientists who selfieโ€! Our experiment had really good and strong results – weโ€™re writing them up now, and will submit to a scientific journal soon!

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Well I for one am very exciting to see the results of your study! You are also one of these Scientists who Selfie on Instagram. What do you love about sharing science using that social media platform?

Daniel: I love the engagement Iโ€™m seeing, especially from kids and teenagers! I think a lot of people are intensely fascinated by human experience, like I am, and want to learn what neuroscience does and doesnโ€™t know about how the brain creates experience.

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So outside of research, what do you love to do?

Daniel: My spare time is spent either doing science communication, reading, or seeing friends! Iโ€™m never bored.

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Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

Daniel: Doing exactly what Iโ€™m doing now: neuroscience research and communication!

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And finally, where in the world should I be visiting next?

Daniel: Unfortunately I havenโ€™t traveled nearly as much I would like – I mainly fly to Israel to see family, and have been to Hawaii a few times. But one really magical place, which will always stay with me, is the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. I used to walk over there with my friends when I was an undergraduate at Princeton, and meander around its beautiful old buildings, where geniuses like Einstein, Gรถdel, and von Neumann once worked. Behind those buildings thereโ€™s a large, quiet pond, where my friends and I would sometimes walk, picnic, or throw a ball around. By that pond, thereโ€™s an abstract sculpture, on which thereโ€™s a quote by Einstein that Iโ€™ll never forget: โ€œAll our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlikeโ€”and yet it is the most precious thing we have.โ€

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Huge thanks to Daniel for taking the time to answer my questions. It is so great to see how varied research in a particular field like neuroscience can be so thank you for your insights. Make sure you follow Daniel over on Instagram as his feed is always full of absolutely stunning images of brains and brain cells. I challenge you not to be inspired!

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And, where are they now?

If you missed what Spotlight September was all about thenย check back here. But this is the second year that I am doing this monthly special on my blog, and as well as bringing you NEW stories from scientists and engineers around the world, I also want to catch up with the scientistโ€™s I have previously featured on my blog. Today is the time to catch up with another wonderful lady from last year’s Spotlight September, Erin W. Check out Erin’s Scientist in the Spotlight feature from last year to learn more about what she has been up to in and out of work, as well as how you can follow her on social media. Let’s see what the past 12 months as brought for Erin:

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S P O T L I G H T S E P T E M B E Rย 2018 has truly begun, and I am very excited to bring you more stories from scientists across the world. Make sure to check back in every Monday and Friday in September to meet another scientist and learn about their story, and to catch up with our previously featured scientists too. Did you enjoy this story today? Is there anyone you would love to see featured on my Scientist in the Spotlight features over the next year?

Science love.

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