Student Stories

Battlestar Sean

Now that it's officially winter here in Chicago, we thought we'd take one last look at warmer days.  In this installment of our Summer Postcards series, we hear how one student spent his summer studying the human brain with the goal of a cylon-future in mind.

--Jessen O'Brien, Senior New Media Editor

I want to make cylons. 

For non-Battlestar Gallactica fans, cylons, look, feel, and speak like humans. However, they are stronger, can "project" (alter their sensory perception of a monotonous spaceship into a lush forest, for instance) and, of course, the crème de la crème of cylon advantages: they can't die. Their minds instead upload into a new body, and death simply becomes a "learning experience," to quote the show. 

Although mind-uploading is far off, I'm pouring my efforts into more immediately possible goals, like the development of neuroprosthetics. For my entire summer holiday, I did just that at the University of Oxford's Department of Clinical Neurology. Dr. Stephen Hicks, an Australian-born-UK émigré, is the principal investigator behind a new project here at Oxford.  I helped out as a research assistant on this project, titled "A low cost non invasive visual prosthetic for blindness.” 

Our laboratory was part of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, so my first two weeks were filled with tight deadlines and late nights spent designing a navigation interface for our visual prosthetic. This chaos brought the entire team closer together, and during it I functioned as a public relations representative, describing our prosthetic to an audience ranging from BBC interviewers and sixth form students to grandmothers and Royal Fellows clad in white-tie attire.

After the Royal Society Exhibition drew to a close, I rose to a new position: laboratory minion. I deviated momentarily from visual prosthetic research to aid Dr. Hayriye Cagnan in designing an experiment to test a different form of neural implant — one that induces deep brain stimulation and acts as a pseudo-pace maker for individuals with Parkinson’s. Although a region of the brain known as the subthalamic nucleus (STN) is typically the site of this implant, Dr. Cagnan’s lab has discovered a brain region that might be more therapeutically advantageous, the pedunculopontine nucleus (PPN). Again, we worked late afternoons in the lab — patient testing was scheduled, and we had a deadline to meet.  

Although we are still many years away from mind uploading, I am confident that our understanding of the human brain will eventually reach a level where components of its activity may be reproduced.  Even as you read this article, the EPFL in Switzerland is working on a “Blue Brain Project” to accomplish this task. Overall, this summer contributed to my eventual life goal of cylon creation, with the bionic eye as step one. By understanding the visual system at its deepest level, we can apply science to alleviate afflictions once thought incurable.  And into the foreseeable future, replicating the bionic eye’s activity will only bring humanity closer to creating its cylon children.  

But enough about cylons. I’m proud to say that this summer I helped research visual prosthetics, developed a better understanding of Parkinson’s Disease, and designed a number of experiments.  My learning transcended the boundaries of the lab.  I can now distinguish between various British accents. I know my way around one of the oldest English universities in the world as well as the bohemian coffee and music venues that pepper London.  But even more than that, it really was an extension of my education at the University of Chicago, in that my exposure to diverse peoples and ideas at UChicago enabled me to be accepting and open to a culture completely foreign to my own.  Living in Crown House with people from all walks of life and all regions of the world taught me how to understand people in the context of their culture.  I would never have walked away with these lessons had it not been for my experiences at UChicago.

I was recently accepted to the engineering program at MIT for the Spring of 2012, and it is with mixed feelings that I leave the University of Chicago. In neuroscience, a commonly used phrase is “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This holds true even with my friends at the University of Chicago–you connect with people on a deeper level here. The people you party with are the people you debate with, the people you nerd out about Durkheim with, and the people who you’ll probably keep in contact for the rest of your life with. The theoretical emphasis at UChicago has given me the skill-set to detect problems, and now the applied emphasis at MIT will enable me to fix them as well.