Growing Up In Science

Mar 28, 2024, 4:00 pm5:00 pm


Event Description

"Unofficial Stories" — A conversation with Dr. Ann Hermundstad, Group Leader, Janelia Research Campus


**Registration required by March 26th.**


Official Bio

I'm interested in understanding how the brain creates and uses adaptive sensorimotor representations to generate flexible behavior in the face of uncertainty and environmental change. My lab uses a combination of theory, modeling, and data analysis to explore how neural circuits can do this efficiently and flexibly, and we work in close collaboration with experimentalists to test these ideas in behaving animals.

Before starting my lab at Janelia in 2016, I studied physics at the Colorado School of Mines, where I worked with Lincoln Carr on problems related to the quantum behavior of ultracold atoms. After a brief hiatus volunteering overseas, I moved to UCSB for my PhD, where I worked on a variety of problems in statistical physics related to granular materials, biophysics, and network science in Jean Carlson's Complex System Group.  After my PhD, I did a postdoc in theoretical neuroscience with Vijay Balasubramanian, initially at École Normale Supérieure in Paris and later at UPenn in Philadelphia.

Unofficial Bio

I grew up in a small town in western Colorado, surrounded by desert. If you had told me that one day I’d be a scientist, I would have had to ask you what that was…and then I wouldn’t have believed you. At different points throughout my undergrad, grad, and postdoc years, I was close to changing paths/dropping out/leaving science, and I’ve had people tell me that I don’t fit the mold for this career. I also wouldn’t be here without the help of some amazing people who, in big or small ways, helped enable my trajectory. I have never (including now) thought that this is the one and only thing that I could do. But I do love it.

Growing up, I was lucky to have a family that valued education, and I always had a sense that I would go on to get a (graduate-level) degree before I got married, had kids, and (most likely) stayed home to raise them. There was a certain set order to things, and a certain scope that I could see to life. This was reinforced throughout my early social life, when status was defined by many things good and bad, but not by intellectual ambition. In high school, I was smart enough to pass as a mediocre student, and I scraped by in all of my honors classes. I loved creative writing, art, and math; I hated physics (memorization), chemistry (memorization), and biology (no surprise…). Early in my senior year, my guidance counselor told me that one day, I might even have what it takes to be an accountant (but I didn’t have a good enough record to apply to any of those big, prestigious, out-of-state schools). Around the same time, I realized that there were people in my classes who seemed to have gotten much more out of the course material than I had…they seemed to really know things. This is the first time I remember wondering whether I could do more…whether effort-in might correlate with gain-out. I was curious to see what I could do if I tried. At that time, I would have loved to go to school for art and writing, but that seemed impractical. I decided that “engineering” (whatever that was) sounded much more reasonable, and I would see how far I could go with that. I did an about-face as a student, and from then on, I worked really hard. I still do.

Speeding up: I attended a small engineering school in Colorado. I fell in love with physics (no longer memorization), and I had wonderful mentors who helped me redirect from electrical engineering and accelerate through the physics curriculum. I became intrigued by our (lack of?) understanding of neuroscience when my biophysics professor described neurosurgery as scooping out parts of the brain with a spoon. I got involved in research and was told that my coding skills were abysmal, but that I might be well suited for something more abstract, like string theory. Despite being at the top of my class, I left undergrad with the assumption that I would become a teacher but not a researcher. And because the interesting part of my life would surely be over if I went to grad school, I took time off to teach in Bolivia, travel through southern Africa, and take art/music/dance classes before coming back to study physics in grad school at UCSB. In the span of my time there, I studied molecular dynamics and protein folding, amorphous materials and earthquake rupture, and artificial neural networks and human neuroimaging. I was miserable in the middle, and almost dropped out and went to art school…but I got the chance to analyze data, and something clicked. I understood what it felt like to see something new. This was the first time I remember seeing a path ahead in research (it took me a bit longer to learn how to integrate theory in a meaningful way). I sought out a postdoc to figure out what the brain was really made of (beyond blood oxygenation levels and fiber tracts), and “why” it’s organized as it is. I was lucky to be a part of some great collaborations, but important people gave me the (explicit) sense that science was not for someone like me. I started applying for industry jobs, and before accepting any, I decided to try my hand at the academic job market so that I could leave science without regrets. That went better than those people perhaps expected. Against most advice, I accepted a position at Janelia. I have loved it.

  • Princeton Neuroscience Institute
  • Department of Psychology
Lindsey Brown
Event Series