- Feature Story
In her Own Words: Ashti Shah'20
How far can I push myself? For me, the only place I could answer this question is at MIT, which helped me decide to come here initially. Medical school has always been on the horizon for me, so I knew I wanted to pursue a major in the life sciences, but after being expose to a broad range of classes in different subjects my first year, I know I wanted to continue to do a little bit of everything. That’s how I ultimately landed in Course 9–it’s so interdisciplinary. You can take classes in cellular/molecular science, lab skills, computation and more just within BCS, and I have continued to enjoy the ability to take classes in other departments at MIT too.
My first UROP experience led me to Prof. John Gabrieli’s lab after taking his 9.00 class, where I worked under the mentorship of postdoctoral fellow Nicholas Hubbard to learn the ropes of working in a lab, navigate my own understanding of the research, and eventually develop and conduct my own experiment. Research in the GabLab focuses on using brain imaging techniques and behavioral testing to understand how we learn, think and feel, how these factors differ across diverse populations and to use this information to help those with neurodevelopmental disorders. At first, I spent a lot of time reading papers and jumping in to help out on odd projects like data collection, writing data analysis scripts and other tasks.
For my own experiment, I used functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a noninvasive imaging technique that measures brain activity through hemodynamic responses. Using electrodes, you can connect a human subject to the machine and observe changes in oxy- and deoxygenated hemoglobin levels in their brain to help you pinpoint where in the brain processes that particular behavior, task or activity. In adults, we have a rough timeline for working memory that grows in childhood, plateaus in adulthood and decays in old age. In my experiment, I looked at healthy adults to understand how individual differences affect the process of working memory in the brain. To our knowledge, no one had used fNIRS to study healthy adults using the kind of task paradigm we outlined in the experiment, and it provides a good baseline of data to eventually branch out into other patient populations to track how these variables impact working memory. Eventually, we hope to develop this technique even further to serve as a clinical tool in the future.
Coming to a world-renowned research institution like MIT, I wanted to make sure that I incorporated laboratory experience into my coursework, and I’m so glad I did. The Course 9 curriculum provides a strong foundation of the tools and skills you need to approach problems, and one of the most surprising things I have learned through my research experience is that everyone in the lab is actively learning, all of the time. It was a huge shift in perspective for me because as a student, you are primarily memorizing pre-existing knowledge, but in the lab, you are charting completely new territory, and that’s what makes it really exciting. Even though it took eighteen months to get to this point, it’s also exciting to be in the process of being able to explain my research succinctly and write up my own experimental results to submit for publication. As my project in the Gabrieli lab winds down, I recently joined Prof. Rebecca Saxe’s lab and I can’t wait to see where this new experience takes me!