Researching and Modeling the Structure of Memory

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - 4:07pm

By Charlotte Kugler '14

Ever since studying abroad in Scotland, Lisa Ung '12 has loved Europe and hoped to return. She did so this past summer, this time traveling to Germany in pursuit of cutting-edge research in neuroscience that is difficult to find in the Pioneer Valley.

Through a German cultural exchange organization’s Research in Science and Engineering (RISE) program, Ung discovered an internship at the University of Ruhr in Bochum where she could study the structure of learning and memory.

“I couldn’t find any other opportunity in any other country to do research through an organized program for international students,” Ung said. “I wanted to return to Europe and live in such a culturally rich environment.”

The location played a critical role in Ung’s decision to apply, as she wanted to learn socially as well as scientifically. Moreover, the RISE program partners with more than 200 labs, many of them working at the forefront of scientific innovation, offering her intellectual excitement and a diverse population of student researchers.

Ung’s work in Bochum involved developing a neural network that mimics pigeon learning sequences, with the hope that it would shed light on how humans learn integral patterns such as language. To do so, she mainly used MATLAB, a dynamic scientific programming software.

“We wanted to create a learning model in the form of a machine that would demonstrate how learning occurs in birds, which in fact share many similarities to humans,” she explained.

Ung believes neuroscience is the future of scientific discovery. Her participation in the RISE program in Germany left her even more in awe of the human brain and the potential for scientific research to illuminate what we don’t yet understand.

“I think the most important thing I learned was how rich and overflowing the possibilities in science are,” she said. “I learned so much about what the brain can do. It’s very difficult to properly afford this organ the appropriate amount of admiration, as its capacities seem to extend well beyond how much we currently know.”

Her experiences have also left her with a better sense of what she wants to pursue after her time at Mount Holyoke. As a biology and philosophy double major, Ung was very excited by the kind of material her internship involved; however, after spending the past three summers working in scientific research, she is considering expanding her interests.

“Next year I will be working in consulting, a field that I hope will combine my skills in both science and philosophy,” she said. “I may also decide to pursue engineering in graduate school. My time in Germany will always remind me of the wealth of science and diversity of human civilizations.”