Where Computing Meets Brain Research

My first impression of the BCS Department at MIT
JAN 2020
Brain and Cognitive Sciences

Three years ago, I first came to the U.S. for an international conference in Boston. As I passed through the MIT campus during a morning jog, I saw the beautiful sunrise on the Charles River. The sky was crystal clear and the great dome was golden brown. I was wondering how happy the students at MIT must be to study in such a beautiful place. But back then, I had never thought that someday I could actually be here as a student too. How did I end up studying the brain at MIT? What made me choose MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) department over all other programs? 

It was in college when I realized what I wanted to do for my career. My grandfather, once a professor who teaches philosophy and full of wisdom, got Alzheimer’s and gradually became unresponsive to the world. As I searched for ways to save him, I learned that we still know very little about our brain and there is nothing we can do to turn the tide of the disease. I realized the importance of basic brain research and became fascinated with the most recent advancements of neuroscience-inspired AI. Driven by my, I decided to pursue a PhD to study the brain, cognition and AI at graduate school; I hoped to find a place where I can apply my previous training in physics and computer science and conduct breakthrough research to advance our understanding of intelligence, whether biological or artificial.

I applied to many neuroscience graduate programs in different universities across the U.S. It was the interview weekend at the Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) department at MIT that left me with the deepest impression. Faculty members gave lightning talks about the cutting-edge work in their labs, covering the whole spectrum of brain-related research, from molecular-genetic studies to machine learning and computational modeling. I also heard talks about psycholinguistics, about which I knew nothing before I came to BCS. I suddenly realized the critical role of language in our day-to-day thinking, and how important it is to understand language as the foundation of understanding human intelligence. Although I do not expect myself to be actually engaged in that particular research area, having close contact with people from diverse fields is extremely intellectually stimulating. The open house weekend was really a mind-blowing experience and I was excited about the unlimited potential of future research. I think MIT BCS is one of the very few schools in the country (if not the only one) that has faculty members and students from such diverse backgrounds all working in the same building to unravel the mystery of intelligence.

Another thing that made me extremely excited about BCS is the interaction between art and science in this community. I believe science and art are both about creativity, hard work, and finding inspiration. And I constantly get inspired by artworks in my daily life. Standing at the entrance of the BCS building is a giant bronze sculpture called “SCIENTIA”, which reminds us that “art and science are not separate entities,” (according to Lore Harp McGovern, co-founder of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research). Inside the building, you can see the sculpture “Schwerpunkt”, which is composed of 100 oversized neurons floats, arranged seemingly at random, hanging high above the lobby. When viewed from a focal point on the third floor, they suddenly align into the shape of a brain hemisphere. I still remember the pure joy of finding that out for the first time. There was also a special exhibition at the MIT museum called The Beautiful Brain, featuring none other than the original drawings of Santiago Ramon Cajal, who is considered the father of modern neuroscience. Surrounded by wonderful artworks and exhibitions, I am convinced that the BCS department at MIT is the place where I can constantly find inspiration and work enjoyably for the next few years.

Nowadays, the connection between computing and brain research has become stronger. As a graduate student who studies the brain with a background in physics and computer science, I find it extremely exciting to see that I have close access to initiatives like The Center for Brains, Minds and Machines (CBMM) and MIT’s Quest for Intelligence. Last year, MIT has announced its plan to “reshape itself to shape the future” by establishing the Schwarzman College of Computing. I believe MIT will continue to be in the leading position at the interface of computing and brain-related research since early pioneers like Marvin Minsky and David Marr. My interview experiences made me believe that MIT is the best place to expand my horizons and make a future impact.

I hope that my post will help you make a decision to choose a school that is interdisciplinary at its core and can constantly give you inspiration. I look forward to seeing you at MIT in the future.