Preparing Future Faculty scholar explains how intricate neural processes are key to decision-making
Please introduce yourself, where are you from?
My name is Archana Shashidhar Mysore, I’m an international student from Pune, Maharashtra, India. Fun facts: I have learned an Indian classical dance form called Bharatnatyam since I was five and I have a two-year-old Jack Russel puppy!
Where did you go to school before ASU?
I completed my undergraduate degree (Bachelor of Technology in biomedical engineering) at Vellore Institute of Technology, in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, India in 2018.
What did you study in the past and what are your pursuing now?
I pursued my master’s thesis degree in Biomedical Engineering at ASU and defended my master’s thesis in the summer of 2020. Then, continued on to a PhD in Biomedical Engineering. I intend to graduate in December 2023.
What’s something you learned during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective?
I have always believed that education is about empowering people to learn and guiding them in the correct direction as opposed to a single person imparting knowledge like in a traditional lecture setting. I was pleasantly surprised and reassured to witness the power of multidisciplinary and multicultural classes in the peer-learning process at ASU. It is true to the ASU mission statement about being known for whom we include rather than exclude. The perspectives brought forth by the students that shape their thinking have a significant impact and outreach than traditional learning methods.
What types of problems do you work on? Why do you think they are important?
Humans interact with the environment by controlling their actions. For example: If you are driving a car, you would press the accelerator to move forward and brake to stop or slow down. To successfully interact with our environment, we must control our actions based on task context and objectives to maximize benefits and minimize costs (e.g., effort vs. errors). Continuing from the example above– if we are approaching a red traffic signal (task context: we don't have right of way), we brake to avoid an accident (prevent error). Therefore, it is critical to selectively tend to relevant information from the volume of data in the environment, in order to understand the task context and implement a plan to reach an objectives. With the driving example, a person must identify the traffic light at an intersection and make the correct decision to dictate the action.
As part of my research, I study the neural and behavioral processes associated with how people identify relevant information in their environment and how they use this data to make effective decisions that promptly control their actions. This research is critical because those decision-making processes can be impaired in several neurological disorders. Understanding those processes will aid in developing better rehabilitation interventions and protocols that inspire my side projects in clinical populations.
Why do you think these problems exist?
The processes I research are central to human cognition and are performed parallel to other brain processes. Accordingly, the brain area network associated with different aspects of this process is distributed throughout the brain. Hence adverse impacts by neurological disorders invariably affect one or more of these processes that eventually need rehabilitation to improve patient functioning.
How did you become involved in this type of work, what inspired you?
The first time I came across the life-altering adverse effects of neurological disorders was when I started teaching a classical Indian dance form (Bharatnatyam) during my early teens. Some students had the potential to be exceptional dancers but their facial expressions and control over their movements were hindered by neurological deficits. I naïvely thought I needed to become a doctor to aid in patient rehabilitation.
Only later, in high school and after earning my undergraduate degree, I realized research and innovation could impact a much larger population. Over the years, I realized how critical these processes are in life or death situations. For example, it takes only a couple of milliseconds to pull the trigger on a gun that affects the lives of people in that environment. Therefore, understanding these processes in neurotypical populations is crucial to prevent fatal errors. My work is a humble attempt at improving lives and pushing the world toward better decision-making to protect life.
Also, I would like to make a special mention to Greg Gage (co-founder of Backyard Brains) for introducing me to the power of neuromodulation through his Ted Talk. Neuromodulation is the ability to modify the functioning of neurons using various stimulation techniques.
What are some of the approaches and methods you use in your research?
Most of the research work I perform is with healthy human participants though I have a collaborative clinical project too. Typically, in our experiments, we request our participants perform simple tasks such as watching visuals on a screen and responding by pressing keys based on specific rules within the task, that are customized to study a specific process. As they do that, neurons in the brain (and the rest of the body) communicate using tiny electrical signals when we place sensitive, miniature electrodes on the head (electroencephalography or EEG). This scan allows us to record brain activity dynamics as participants perform tasks.
What are some of the problems you face in your work?
Irrespective of how important our research is, our utmost priority is the comfort and safety of participants. Therefore, we need to carefully execute safety studies before our experiments and critically monitor the parameters of brain stimulation before administering them. Taking these precautions which leads to the extension of the project timeline.
Do you interact with any organizations outside of ASU?
I am part of a collaborative project with Barrow Neurological Institute (Phoenix), investigating rehabilitation interventions for stroke patients. I’m a graduate student member of the Society for Neuroscience and attended my first annual conference last November. It was an enlightening experience to interact with budding and experienced neuroscientists from across the world doing incredible work in academia, industry and clinical settings.
Throughout graduate school, I have interacted with members of the NSF-funded IUCRC BRAIN center and have mentored students on lab projects. As an international student, I understand the struggles we face and the resources we need to be well informed in order to achieve our dreams. So, I mentor students from undergraduate colleges and high schools that want to pursue graduate education in the US. I have created informative videos on similar topics with Robert Adams and Yashna Trust: EducationUSA Advising Center.
What special skills do you need in this work?
Biomedical engineering is an intensely interdisciplinary field that comes with a fair share of challenges. Research experiments require the researcher to know about a wide variety of fields such as neuroscience, psychology, kinesiology, statistics, electrical and systems engineering; it is critical to understand the literature within these widely different fields. Additionally, since interdisciplinary research is a recent phenomenon, there isn’t funding dedicated to it but there is a large amount of capital required to obtain equipment and personnel and to compensate participants.
What do you like best about this work?
I am fascinated by the psychology and neuroscience of brain functioning. We are constantly bombarded by information, filtering out what’s relevant and using it to make decisions to maximize benefits and reduce costs. We also know to execute the perfect movement with absolute precision while accounting for several distractors. I’m in awe of this magnificent parallel processing ability and the sheer efficiency of the brain. I’m humbled and lucky to have a group of experienced researchers guiding me in this process. I am grateful to the participants who sit through hours of our experiments!
Is there an event, initiative or funding opportunity at the Graduate College that you’re excited about?
Yes, well I have interacted with the Grad College several times; I received a travel award that funded for my visit to the SfN 2022 Conference and received a lot of help from the graduate writing center while drafting my master’s thesis. My favorite seminar at the Graduate Collge is PFx because I feel more confident in pursuing my dream of obtaining a teaching and research-focused career in academia, now that I am equipped with resources and networking opportunities. Additionally, I look forward to applying for the Graduate College Completion Fellowship next semester when I defend my thesis.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in your field or pursuing higher education?
The type of graduate degree you want to pursue (master’s in engineering or science, non-thesis or thesis, PhD, post-doc) highly depends on your interest, motivation and career goals. All these graduate degrees have different levels of intensity and necessary time commitment. Most university websites highlight the requirements of these processes; additionally, you must speak to professionals who have completed the respective degrees to decide what is appropriate for you.
Here's my advice to PhD students:
- Select an advisor with a similar work style, who will understand your needs; make sure to establish clear communication with them.
- You can’t finish your PhD project in a day or even a few months, so do not work intense long hours without breaks. It will only lead to fatigue and oversaturation. Instead, plan and set goals for the timeline of the project. Consistency as well as gradual, self-motivated work is essential to completing a PhD.
- Grad school is challenging enough, so prioritize your mental health and establish a work-life balance.
What are some of your long-term professional goals?
It is to build an academic career focused on interdisciplinary research and teaching. Eventually, I will incorporate an administrative component of public outreach and new student resources.
Please tell us about your experience with PFx!
When I signed up for PFx, I had a solid vision about the academic career I wanted to pursue, but little knowledge about how I would fit in the academic landscape, the right career path to follow or methods for implementing my teaching and research ideas. For example, I wanted to encourage interactive learning in class and help students prioritize mental health but didn’t know how to design courses to implement that or how to foresee emerging challenges. PFx has provided resources, methods and the network I needed to realize my vision. I was introduced to fascinating presentation styles and learned to collaborate with a multidisciplinary team of students from diverse backgrounds, which added to my interpersonal skills.