Salvador Dura Bernal - PhD in Computational Neuroscience

Current employer: State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center and New York University (NYU)

Current job title: Research Assistant Professor (SUNY) / Adjunct Professor (NYU)

Current location: Brooklyn, New York

"The research environment and interaction with other lab members at Plymouth made me excited about neuroscience." 

What was the title of your project? 

A cortical model of object perception based on Bayesian networks and belief propagation.

Describe your research in one sentence. 

Understanding how the brain perceives objects and visual illusions, by building a computational model of the visual cortex based on probabilistic Bayesian inference: combining the visual input coming through your eyes with what your brain already knows about the world.

What was the most exciting element(s) of your project (e.g. fieldwork or conferences etc)? 

At first conferences were quite scary and intimidating, but they gradually became more fun, and it is always great to travel around the world for free! I also enjoyed learning all the exciting details about how the brain works, and the many mysteries that remain unsolved. I also gave talks and demonstrations at schools as part of the STEM Ambassadors programme, which was very gratifying. 

What was the most exciting outcome of your project? 

When the results of the brain simulation matched with real experimental data (which didn’t happen often!); and realising that your work might contribute, even if just a very teeny tiny piece, to solving the puzzle of the brain. Publishing the first paper, and discussing your work with others was also quite exciting. 

Tell us what you have been doing since completing your research. 

I did a 1.5 year postdoc – simulating the brain auditory system – at the same lab in Plymouth University, in collaboration with the University of Cyprus and Johns Hopkins University, where I travelled to a few times. After that I got a second postdoc position at SUNY Downstate developing brain models to use in brain-machine interfaces – electrodes record brain signals and these are decoded to control a robotic arm: http://neurosimlab.org/billl/salv_robot.mp4. I’ve also taught graduate students at SUNY and undergraduates at NYU. Recently, I’ve been promoted to Research Assistant Professor and got my first small research grant. 

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to get in to the same line of work? 

There is an incredible amount of exciting – and fully funded – PhD and postdoc positions both in Europe and US, so go for it. During the PhD remember that most students at some point feel they have no idea what they are doing, they are a fraud and somebody will soon notice (at least I did). This is normal. Talk to your colleagues. I’m very grateful to all my friends in the lab who made each day more fun and easy going. Procrastination is also normal and in fact can be healthy and help keep you sane – read PhDComics.

How did your time at Plymouth University help you? 

The research environment and interaction with other lab members at Plymouth made me excited about neuroscience. I was also lucky to have two incredibly supportive supervisors (Sue Denham and Thomas Wennekers) who encouraged me to follow my own ideas and interests. The postdoc at Plymouth included collaborations with several universities around the world, which made it easier to get my current position in New York.

Would you recommend undertaking research at Plymouth University, and why? 

Definitely, it’s a very modern university with lots of resources and world-leading researchers. Plus it’s located right in the centre of a lively city full of students and young people, with lots of fun activities such as hiking, sports and partying. Also, there are many opportunities to interact with other researchers and labs; for example, despite being in the neuroscience department, I was able to interact with researchers in psychology and robotics, which provided different and interesting perspectives on my work.

Is there anything else which you would like to share with our current students? 

I’m extremely lucky because I really enjoy what I do every day. I love learning and discussing about the latest brain research and building brain models. I often think if it wasn’t my job, I would do it as a hobby. It can be a lot of work, but if you are interested in science, I encourage you to give it a try; it can be an incredibly satisfying and fun job.

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