Surabhi Gupta '11: Mapping the Brain

Tuesday, December 21, 2010 - 15:34

Imagine a map of the human brain. Considering the perplexity of this particular organ, it probably proves to be a challenging task. Surabhi Gupta '11, a computational neuroscience major, attempted to make this exercise a little more manageable through her summer research and evolving senior thesis.

Gupta, a native of New Delhi, India, was selected as one of only ten undergraduates from across the nation to participate in a summer research program at the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition at Carnegie Mellon University. The ten-week residential program provided her with an intensive, mentored research experience in computational neuroscience.

Gupta first heard of the program after contacting David Touretzky, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and a prominent researcher in the fields of artificial intelligence and computational neuroscience. Touretzky encouraged her to apply to the program and offered to act as her mentor in the event that she was accepted. She was, and she arrived in Philadelphia at the end of May to begin a journey that she would subsequently describe as "one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my academic life."

After immersing herself in dozens of papers from neuroscience literature, brainstorming potentially innovative responses to some of neuroscience's most interesting questions, and consulting with Touretzky, Gupta narrowed the focus of her research to a two-dimensional modeling of pathfinding networks in the brain.

"The brain is incredibly efficient at storing a large number of spatial locations, organizing them as a map that is then used to find paths from one location to another. My research attempts to answer questions regarding the neural code for the representation of these locations in the brain and the composition of locations at hierarchically higher levels, compared to those at lower levels," she explained.

According to Gupta, her interest in computational neuroscience was the natural synthesis of her passion for programming and her fascination with the human brain.

"I have been programming since seventh grade and have from an early age been very attracted to the science behind the human nervous system. It is my luck that the field has really embraced the application of programming skills to the analysis of biological data," she said.

At Mount Holyoke, Gupta's initial interests evolved with the guidance of faculty, as well as through her own classroom experiences.

"My advisor, Susan Barry, has two-hour conversations on neuroscience with me in her office, and my courses have always allowed for creativity. Even when I was not taking computational biology, I've always been encouraged to cultivate my passion. In a class on the art of music, I remember the professor supporting my idea of carrying out an independent project on the relationship between music and the brain," she said.

Gupta is grateful the summer program gave her the opportunity to explore her own research interests and to hear from professors, graduate students, and other experts in computational neuroscience on their recent research achievements. Hearing these individuals share their stories only confirmed her belief that computational neuroscience is a field that never ceases to be exciting.

"This field is incredibly fascinating," she said. "There is cutting-edge research constantly in the works, and people are discovering things every day. I mean, just imagine developments that would allow your brain to interface with a computer. The possibilities are endless."