Brains in Spain

by Laura Loesch '09

Human brain conference

This past June, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of strangers, listening to a keynote lecture at the 2010 Human Brain Mapping Conference in Barcelona. It reminded me of my first Core lecture, in Garrison Theater, with classmates I was yet to know. In a sense, it was my early experiences at Scripps College, including Core, that set me along a path that brought me to Barcelona.

While at Scripps, I was a double major in humanities and cognitive neuroscience. I had entered as a biology, pre-medicine student, but, because of Core, decided to adopt a second major in humanities. Combined with Core, this major’s courses opened up a new way of thinking and learning. Namely, an interdisciplinary school of thought — a way of approaching the world in which one tries to ignore conventions and disciplinary boundaries and find connections between different fields.

In Core, I specifically remember being struck by the notion that anyone could propel a field forward by simply refusing to take the standard set of assumptions for granted. It was questioning the status quo that led to ideas like quantum mechanics and Mendelian genetics.

Even my field, psychological neuroscience, is marked by a “paradigm shift” from behavioralism (all behavior is just a learned response to a stimulus) to the view of the Cognitive Revolution that we are capable of real thoughts. I found the idea — that by asking the right questions, one might make a breakthrough in one’s field — extremely exciting. Science was no longer a set of facts one learned to gain admission to medical school. Science became interesting for its own sake. I took an interdisciplinary approach to my education, one that exposed me to several fields of thought, combined with a willingness to ask many questions, as the best approach to gaining the most I could at Scripps. Around the time I adopted my humanities major, I replaced my major in biology with one in cognitive neuroscience — a much more interdisciplinary discipline that draws on several fields, including psychology, biology, and computer science.

This deeply engaged academic environment inspired me, like many Scripps women, to study abroad. It was my experience in a psychology lab at University College London that led me to pursue a PhD in computation and neural systems (basically neuroscience) at Caltech. One of my favorite classes at UCL included fascinating lectures given by Hugo Spiers, a colleague of Dr. Eleanor Maguire, the very person who gave the keynote address in the very lecture I found myself sitting in at the HBM conference.

Conferences can be a great medium in which to present your work to others, but there are other benefits to attending. Academically, you are introduced to the latest advances in your field. It is a very exciting atmosphere. In a morning workshop, I learned how to be a “skeptical” neuroimager and question the utility of various models used for neuroimaging analysis. Before and after the lunch hour, I wandered through poster sessions, reading about studies ranging from technical work on finding and tracing the path of nerve fibers in the brain to studies on which brain regions are involved in various social behaviors. There were afternoon symposiums filled with talks on subjects such as how a chemical in the brain called dopamine influences midbrain anatomical structures involved in processing reward and value. Evenings brought many people together for keynote lectures.

I had never fully appreciated the scope of my research community before attending such an international conference. I gained a new appreciation for just how many universities and institutions around the world support departments and laboratories that work towards a shared goal of understanding the functioning of the human brain. Of course, attending an international conference had the added benefit of allowing me to see a new part of the world — Barcelona! I was also able to meet up for dinner with two other former Scripps College classmates — Catherine Holcomb and Martina Ly — and my former professor at Scripps and continued mentor and collaborator, Michael Spezio. It was a joy to enjoy a meal so far from home with individuals who are now my colleagues in a worldwide research community.