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Wellbody RealLife: Dina Popovkina on Neuroscience

Meet Dina Popovkina, a 24-year-old graduate student who researches neurobiology and behavior at the University of Washington. dina popovkina smIn The Studio's current Mind and Machines exhibit within Wellbody Academy, Dina talks about how her early ambitions to become an astronaut were squelched when she realized she got sick riding rollercoasters. She shared with Wellbody Blog how she found her way as a woman in science on her journey from the Ukraine to the UW. And she explains her research about how the brain comprehends visual information.

I didn’t always want to be an astronaut. What drew me to it was exploring, finding out something new, something that had never been done before.

I came to the United States when I was about 12 from Ukraine. Here, the science education is really great, and there’s opportunity. In Ukraine, there are a lot of girls who were interested in learning languages and being involved in science, but there aren’t many opportunities for them.

Once I moved here, I realized there were a lot of female role models. I saw this was a place I could pursue a career in science as a woman. In school, I had a few science teachers who were really enthusiastic about having us do hands-on things and having us investigate things on our own. One of them, I’m really grateful to her, convinced me that science was something I was good at and could do.

I figured out I like chemistry and biology and a lot of the natural sciences in middle school and high school. In college (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), I double majored in biochemistry and ancient studies. I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist--one of those people who investigate ancient remains. What kind of diseases did people have thousands of years ago? What did people eat and drink? 

Around that time, I also learned about neuroscience. And I was fascinated. Being a forensic anthropologist, you’re always looking to the past. Neuroscience, you’re looking toward the future. Like an astronaut.

There’s something about neuroscience that captures everyone because we all have this three-pound organ in our bodies that’s responsible for everything we do. It was strange to figure out we really don’t know a lot about how the brain functions. We can replace a kidney. We can insert an artificial valve into the heart, but we have NO idea how the brain works.

As I started graduate school, I became really interested in how our senses work together. How do we combine all our senses to understand what’s going on? You know a banana is yellow and has an oblong shape. How do we tie that all in with our concept of a banana, including how it smells and tastes?

Light comes in as photons hitting our eye. At one point the brain has to understand what we see: the texture or shape or color. How do the signals of neurons represent this information and how does it all come together into something we understand as a banana? We know what neurons are sending and what neurons are receiving, but we can’t make sense of the patterns quite yet. It’s a little bit like Morse Code. One of the challenges is that it might not be a single neuron. It may be several neurons talking to other neurons that convey this message: Banana.

We use electrophysiology, an electrode, where we put a probe inside the brain and record. We work with macaque monkeys. We train them to look at a screen, look at objects and say whether they objects are the same or different from each other in terms of shape or color. So they play a video game and they get juice for it. We record neural signals from the brain using probes. The brain doesn’t have pain receptors, so it’s not uncomfortable.  They have around-the-clock vet care and food available, so they actually live long than in the wild.

At this point, we know there’s a certain area in the brain that carries information about shape and color. Do these signals get combined in some way? Or are they separate? We think it’s happening in an area of the visual cortex roughly toward the back of the head and a little behind your ear, hidden within a fold of the brain.

We’re hoping in the next year to have some preliminary answers. It will make an impact on a lot of things outside of biology. What we learn about the biological visual system can be applied in artificial visual systems like when a rover goes to Mars.

What about people with severe vision loss? How can we help understand their visual world? There are diseases and traumas that affect the first stage in the brain after information hits the eye. How can we restore vision for those people?

The coolest part of the brain is how it all works together. We always think whatever we do happens instantaneously, but the brain has already done it for us a second earlier. Everything has to happen milliseconds before we’re aware of it. I think it’s cool we’re able to synchronize ourselves with the world without missing a beat. Someone throws a ball. Visually, your brain has to take time to figure out the trajectory. Then your arm has to move to catch it. Synergy!

Visit Minds and Machines now on exhibition in The Studio within Wellbody Academy  to explore how brains are like computers. You'll meet more local scientists like Dina and learn about their work! 


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Guest Sunday, 19 April 2015