Like the brain, computer science major Ayla Nickerson's path has been somewhat two-sided. On one side, there's a deep desire to understand how the mind works. The other, spurred by an introductory computer science course, seeks to develop this understanding through the mechanics of programming and mathematical models. Together, Ayla will develop the skills needed to further our understanding Alzheimer's disease.
"The brain has always been something I've found absolutely incredible. In middle school, I remember my mom picking up this old copy of Grey's Anatomy from a Goodwill or something. When I started flipping through it, I remember it just sort of opening to a page with pictures of the brain. When I saw the illustration, that was it. I knew I found something special."
Completely enthralled, Ayla read all that she could and immediately began drawing the same illustrations of the brain she found in the book.
"I remember drawing the cross section [of the brain] from the top and labeling it, even though I didn't know what any of it meant. I wrote little blurbs, using actual textbooks about the brain. To this day, I still have those drawings."
Her interest in the brain led her to study psychology at South Carolina. And while she found her studies interesting, she couldn't help but wonder if she could relate her interest to other fields.
In an effort to branch out, Ayla decided to take a computer science course that explored basic java programming, something with which she had some experience. Fortunately for her, the course was anything but basic. The instructor turned a simple Java exercise into an interesting exploration into the possibilities of programming.
Having the right major was just the first step. Ayla's path became more focused when two seemingly unrelated topics proved to be quite similar.
"In one of my developmental psychology classes, we learned about deductive reasoning and why you can remember some things faster than others. When the instructor showed us a sketch of how this process looks—it basically looks like a tree—something clicked. It looked just like a searching algorithm we learned about in my computer science course."
Experiences That Intersect
As Ayla explored the intersection of these two interests, she uncovered the field of computational neuroscience, which combines bioinformatics and neuroscience to understand the mechanics of the brain with artificial intelligence.
With determined innovation, Ayla could take the skills she learned in her computer science courses and develop an understanding of what it would take to artificially build a human brain.
"People have built computers from the ground up for years, so when something breaks you know how to fix it. I want to use what I've learned in computer science, bioinformatics and neuroscience to build models of the mind to understand what happens when the mind breaks down."
I am South Carolina.