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Caveat lector: This blog is where I try out new ideas. I will often be wrong, but that's the point.

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14.11.14

SfN 2014

This will be my first year attending SfN as an actual professor (I was hired but hadn't started by SfN 2013).

This means I'm on the lookout for potential PhD students and post-docs. Nothing certain yet, as grants haven't come back, but if you're looking for a place to do you PhD, or thinking about a post-doc in the next year or two, hit me up.

It turns out, San Diego's a pretty nice city, and has pretty good cognitive science and neuroscience programs (FALSE HUMILITY PRECEDING).

You can find me in the following ways:

  • Via my email address on my faculty webpage
  • At the UCSD booth at the 4th Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences (ENDURE) meeting on Saturday, Nov 15 from 9:30-11:00am at the Marriott Marquis, Independence Ballroom EFGH
  • At our book signing at the Princeton University Press booth from 11:00-12:00 on Monday, Nov 17
  • At BANTER on Monday night (probably)
  • At my collaborator's poster session Tuesday, Nov 18, 13:00-17:00, off and on (abstract below)
Program#/Poster#:661.07/VV59
Presentation Title:Automated “spectral fingerprinting” of electrophysiological oscillations
Location:WCC Hall A-C
Presentation time:Tuesday, Nov 18, 2014, 1:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Presenter at Poster:Tue, Nov. 18, 2014, 3:00 PM - 4:00 PM
Topic:++G.04.e. Electrophysiology: Electrode arrays
Authors:M. HALLER1, P. VARMA1,2, T. NOTO4, R. T. KNIGHT1,3, A. SHESTYUK1,3, *B. VOYTEK4,5,6;
1Helen Wills Neurosci. Inst., 2Electrical Engin. and Computer Sci., 3Psychology, Univ. of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA; 4Cognitive Sci., 5Neurosciences Grad. Program, 6Inst. for Neural Computation, UCSD, La Jolla, CA
Abstract:Neuronal oscillations play an important role in neural communication and network coordination. Low frequency oscillations are comodulated with local neuronal firing rates and correlate with a physiological, perceptual, and cognitive processes. Changes in the population firing rate are reflected by a broadband shift in the power spectral density of the local field potential. On top of this broadband, 1/f^α field, there may exist concurrent, low frequency oscillations. The spectral peak and bandwidth of low frequency oscillations differ among people, brain regions, and cognitive states. Despite this widely-acknowledged variability, the vast majority of research uses a priori bands of interest (e.g., 1-4 Hz delta, 4-8 Hz theta, 8-12 Hz alpha, 12-30 Hz beta). Here we present a novel method for identifying the oscillatory components of the physiological power spectrum on an individual basis, which captures 95-99% of the variance in the power spectral density of the signal with a minimal number of parameters. This algorithm isolates the center frequency and bandwidth of each oscillation, providing a blind method for identifying individual spectral differences. We demonstrate how automated identification of individual oscillatory components can improve neurobehavioral correlations and identify population differences in spectral and oscillatory parameters.

13.11.14

The tenure-track: The first months

Apparently people read this blog and have noticed I’ve not updated in a few months. People are all like, “hey man, what happened to your bloviating?”

Here’s the (shocking!) gist: moving to a new city, starting a faculty job, writing a book, having a second child, and creating a new class from scratch has been somewhat time consuming.

My burgeoning lab has just been renovated.

Voytek lab: pre-renovation (L) and post-renovation (R)
I’ve got one post-doc (Erik Peterson) working with me, two PhD students with two more rotating, and one more post-doc joining in early 2015. I’m the diversity chair for Cognitive Science and a diversity committee member for neuroscience (positions I take very seriously and is a topic near and dear to my heart). I’m constantly busy playing catch up, trying to finish up my post-doctoral research while also trying to establish my scientific independence and build my own lab.

Where does that leave me now that I’m a few months in?

Mentorship is difficult, and I’m trying to do well by my trainees. As a mentor there’s a balance between giving guidance and providing freedom, and I’m still learning that.

I (very amicably and somewhat sadly!) resigned my position as data scientist at Uber, mostly because I was too busy and, between my family, my lab, and Uber, something had to give and it wasn’t going to be my family or my lab. So my nearly four-year-long side career in helping build out a multi-billion dollar multi-national company has come to an end (and I could write a whole book about that, probably).

That decision lead me to reassess life and career choices yet again.

I recently gave a talk at TEDxSanDiego about failure, the “passion trap”, and the narratives we tell ourselves. We love a good narrative, and for the past 10 years my personal narrative has been one of a failed student reformed as a neuroscientist. That’s mostly the narrative I’ve shared here on this blog. But I want to make sure I’m not getting caught up in my own narrative and that I don’t pigeonhole myself into a particular way of thinking.

The Uber thing was partially an attempt at pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and away from my neuroscience narrative. Same with writing the zombie book (Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep? now available for sale on Amazon or as an audiobook on Audible BUY IT NOW). In fact, when I’m presented with a new opportunity, one of the major factors in my decision making is, “how weird/novel is this opportunity?”

So I’ve made several deviations in my career but I keep coming back to neuroscience research. I’m just a few months into the tenure-track, and while it’s been a hell of a thing, I have little doubt that I’ve made the right choice. While I’m working a lot, I’m still able to hold evenings and weekends as protected family time, with most weekends spent with my kids at musea, the beach, the zoo, and so on.

Anyway, this is all just a bunch of words to put down on here to excuse my absence so I can get back to writing other stuff.

8.8.14

The language of science

The Washington Post has a headline that reads, verbatim, "A toddler squeezed through the White House gate and caused a security alert. Seriously."


Isn't the Washington Post a "real" newspaper with like, journalistic standards and stuff? Does the headline really need the "Seriously." part, just in case we all thought they were just kiddingsies?

Given how little actually annoys or bothers me, I'm surprised at my own internal response to this. I'm all for the evolution of language, but this seems weirdly out of place.

If I tried to write a scientific paper titled, "Oscillations are fucking rad and you wouldn't believe the four behaviors they control!" it might more accurately capture my personal feelings and excitement, but I wouldn't do it because it's such a culturally-narrow, biased way of talking about the topic.

What I mean by that is that, the language we use conveys information not just through the words, but through the combinations of words, their structures, and so on that provide context about when they were written and their emotional content.

Science papers are often (rightly) criticized for being dry, but that "blandness" is a cultural artifact of an attempt at impartiality and a recitation of facts with minimal emotional bias.

The fact that major news outlets are dropping even the pretense of this is what bothers me, I guess?

27.6.14

Biologists, stop trying to make "moon shot" a thing

Kennedy's "moon shot" was a huge success with regards to throwing a ton of government money at a problem to facilitate and expedite a solution. Getting humans on the moon--and then getting them back home, all using decades-old computer technology--was an incredible feat of engineering, cooperation, and technology development.


But it was a well-defined problem with a clear goal. Here's how it works:

"Hey look, there's the moon. It's pretty far away. Let's go to there."
"Cool! We can get stuff into space. Let's see if we can't make that stuff better so that humans can go, too."

But in biology, the problems are never so well-defined, and sometimes the goals aren't, either! Yet the "moon shot" metaphor is pervasive, especially now with regards to Obama's BRAIN Initiative. Which is unfortunate because calling upon that metaphor as a way of drumming up public support also sets public expectations and if the project fails to meet those expectations then the public trust in large-scale, government-supported research endeavors will erode.

Metaphors are very powerful, and carry with them a lot of meaning and emotional weight, and thus should not be called upon lightly.

In biology, there is no clear goal, nor even a well-defined problem. For the moon landing, we could easily envision what a solution could look like. For neuroscience, we don't know the scope of the problem, nor do we even know what form a solution to "understanding the brain" would look like.

Is "understanding the brain" something done at the cellular or sub-cellular level? What about brain/body interactions? What about emergent phenomena that only arise when individual neurons are all wired up and placed in a complex, dynamic electrochemical environment such as the brain?

We just don't know.

Sadly, this isn't the first time this metaphor has been called upon in biology.

In the 1996, the Human Genome Project was the "moonshot":
"If the human sequence is biology's moonshot, then having the yeast sequence is like John Glenn orbiting the earth a few times," said Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Human Genome Research... (source)
The Human Genome Project was a great success in terms of having a clear goal (sequence the human genome) and reaching it. But of course, as we all know, some of the promises about what that information would provide in terms of treating disease, especially mental illness, have fallen short.
Collins noted that most diseases have both genetic and behavioral components that jointly shape the course of disease and the body's response to particular drug treatments. Many such diseases are of interest to psychologists, including bipolar illness, schizophrenia, autism and attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Medical scientists will soon be able to examine which of the 0.1 percent of the genome that varies across humans correlates with which of these diseases, Collins said. (source)
 Today, for Collins, the moon shot is the Brain Initiative:
“While these estimates are provisional and subject to congressional appropriations, they represent a realistic estimate of what will be required for this moon-shot initiative,” Collins said. “As the Human Genome Project did with precision medicine, the BRAIN Initiative promises to transform the way we prevent and treat devastating brain diseases and disorders while also spurring economic development. (source)
This moon shot metaphor appears to be a major talking point, but as always I'm concerned about what leveraging such metaphors does to erode public support in the long term as yet another major efforts fails to find effective treatments or cures for major neurological and psychiatric disorders.

9.6.14

A Neuroscientist Walks Into a Startup (redux)

Someone just pointed to me that a video of the talk I gave at the 2013 Society for Neuroscience conference on careers beyond the bench is online.


This talk is informal and conversational (which is how I normally talk). Distilling out all my rambling, the main points I touch on are:

  • Why networking?
  • Social networking as an alternative to travel (good for parents like me!)
  • What skills do we have as PhDs?
  • Science communication.
  • Doing something versus knowing something.
  • Breaking into data science.
  • The importance of side projects.

I've said a few of these things before (my time with Uber and my decision to stay in academia) but this is the most comprehensive collection of what little I've learned along the way.