Four faculty members at the University of Washington been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new Sloan Fellows, announced Feb. 23, include Bingni Brunton, assistant professor of biology; Christopher Laumann, assistant professor of physics; Matthew McQuinn, assistant professor of astronomy; and Emina Torlak, assistant professor of computer science and engineering.
The 126 Sloan Fellows for 2016 were nominated by senior colleagues in their field, department or institution. Committees with the Sloan Foundation then examined each nominee’s research goals, publications and achievements and ultimately selected the winners. Each fellow will receive $55,000 to apply toward research endeavors. This year’s fellows come from 52 institutions across the United States and Canada, spanning fields from mathematics to biochemistry. The new Sloan Fellows at the UW reflect this diversity, probing complex questions from neuroscience to quantum mechanics.
For biologist and data scientist Brunton, a data-science fellow with the UW eScience Institute, computer-based methods could be the key to understanding how our brains process information, make decisions and execute tasks from walking to speaking.
“The cells in your brain literally talk to each other using electricity,” said Brunton. “The way you experience the world, produce sensations, reason and experience emotion are all built on a foundation of electrical processes going on within and between brain cells.”
Brunton’s research focuses on understanding how this electrical information is translated into computational processes. Scientists use electrodes to measure and record the electrical activity among groups of neurons and individual neurons in the brain. Brunton takes this information, recorded from human patients as well as research animals like mice and rats, and deciphers the computational processes that underlie this electrical activity.
“I want to understand what this very large collection of cells are saying and how they’re saying it,” said Brunton.
It’s a process that unfolded within her own brain when UW professor Toby Bradshaw, the chair of the Department of Biology, informed Brunton that she had been named a Sloan Fellow for 2016.
“I didn’t believe it at first,” said Brunton. “I made him show me the email announcing it.”
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