Story of My Educational and Professional Background

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

Soccer was the most important activity in my life for much of my childhood and adolescence. I was one of those kids who would practice 4-6 days a week all year round. By the age of 15 years old, I had played soccer all over the United States, Bolivia, Iceland, and Sweden. I was very determined to become a professional goalkeeper for Manchester United in particular (a kid can dream, right?). This determination led me to attend St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, New Jersey. St. Benedict's is well-known for being a one-of-a-kind school and has a story all its own worth getting to know. One of the myriad reasons St.Benedict's is well known is for being one of the best high schools in the United States for boys soccer. Little did I know when I entered St. Benedict's as an aspiring professional athlete that I would graduate as an aspiring professional scientist with an outlook on life that a young man can only get from a St. Benedict's Prep education.

My first real encounter with applying scientific knowledge to build something was my freshman year of high school when I entered the school-wide science fair. For my project, after failing to make a vacuum chamber to demonstrate gravity, I set out to levitate a diamagnetic substrate using super-cooled super-conduction. But this project got halted when one of my teachers discovered I was trying to extract pure lead from batteries (DO NOT ATTEMPT) to serve as the substrate due to my lack of funds (as a 15-year-old) to acquire pure bismuth or find access to a kiln that anyone would actually let me use to fire a bismuth-based clay disk. I settled on doing a presentation on superconductivity and built a relatively powerful electromagnet out of an iron pry bar, several hundred meters of copper wire, and a power source to do a basic demonstration on some of the properties of electromagnetism. I ended up winning the science fair, but more importantly, I began to realize I had a deep interest and talent for science.

During the summer between 10th and 11th grade (summer 2010), I was accepted to study abroad at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England, for the Cambridge Scholars Program. The program allowed each student to choose three courses. The three classes I elected were parliamentary debate, British cultural history, and cognitive neuroscience. The parliamentary debate course taught me incredible lessons in rhetoric and sound argumentation. British cultural history afforded me wonderful opportunities to travel around England and learn about its storied past. And while these two courses taught me a lot and provided memorable experiences, it was the Cognitive Neuroscience course that left the most indelible impression upon me. Until this point, I was keen on studying theoretical physics; however, these lectures forever changed the course of my life as they were what catalyzed my desire to study neuroscience as an undergraduate. I still remember the first lecture, where we learned about the "Invisible Gorilla" experiment; I recall being amazed that the brain could miss something as obvious as a gorilla walking through a basketball game. These lectures at Cambridge inspired me to learn how the brain puts our world together.

By the time I was a senior in high school the center of gravity of my interests had substantially shifted from athletic competition to scientific and philosophical inquiry. Although I was relatively talented at soccer and was playing with some of the best kids in the country - some of whom were beginning to get recruited by professional clubs around the world, it was becoming increasingly clear to me that soccer was ultimately not my calling. While I likely could have continued on at a college-level, I decided to quit playing soccer competitively in order to focus on my studies and broaden my horizons in general.

In June of 2011, I graduated from St.Benedict's Prep and that September began my enrollment at Union College in Schenectady, New York, where I majored in cognitive neuroscience and minored in philosophy. Over my four years at Union, I received a solid multidisciplinary liberal arts education. Interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration is a central tenet of Union college. As students, we were often forced out of our intellectual comfort zones by being required to take courses whose subjects significantly diverged from the fields we majored in -- and were challenged to find connections between these subject areas where one would have traditionally overlooked. This general philosophy of encouraging interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration profoundly impacted my intellectual development.

Coincidentally, my neuroscience advisor at Union College turned out to be Christopher Chabris Ph.D., co-author of both the internationally renowned psychology study and the book it inspired, The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us - the same study which years prior had first piqued my interest into the world of neuroscience. Prof. Chabris was both my advisor and professor for several courses, including Cognitive Neuroscience. I feel very grateful for having had the opportunity to be advised by and take classes with Prof. Chabris. His courses provided me a solid foundation in cognitive neuroscientific theory and practice.

During the summer of 2013, I completed an internship in the Motor Control Lab at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, under the supervision of James Thomas PhD., P.T. The project I was assigned to was "The RELIEF study", an NIH funded double-blind randomized controlled trial investigating novel non-invasive interventions for chronic lower lumbar pain. That summer I gained first hand experience working with advanced techniques like electromyography (EMG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which until then I had only learned about conceptually. Overall this internship was my first true exposure to seriously rigorous research and added much fuel to the fire of me wanting to be a professional, scientific researcher whose work helps improve people's quality of life. Perhaps the most important lesson I learned during this summer was something Dr. Thomas said to me: "If you want to do cutting-edge research, you need to master programming". However, it would take until the following winter for me to appreciate this advice.

At the beginning of February of my third year at Union College, Prof. Chabris initiated an introduction between me and his colleague from NYU, Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D. who is an expert in cognitive psychological and neurophysiological data analysis, and author of the textbooks, MATLAB for Neuroscientists (2013) and Neural Data Science (2017). This introduction led to me having the opportunity that summer (2014) to complete an internship at the Cognition and Perception Lab at NYU Center for Neural Science under Dr. Wallisch's supervision. My internship involved conducting pilot experiments for a study on visual attention. Before beginning my internship, Dr. Wallisch advised me that I needed to learn as much MATLAB programming as possible prior to the start of the summer. I spent the following months preceding the internship learning MATLAB through self-instruction and Dr. Wallisch's textbook, Matlab for Neuroscience.

Along with generally broadening my experience by interacting with NYU professors and graduate students, this summer internship was highly influential on me as a scientist. For the first time, I was assisting with the experiment design of a real study, collecting and analyzing psychophysical data; to run an experiment and make publishable figures. One of the NYU professors Dr. Wallisch, introduced me to was Zoran Josipovic Ph.D., someone who would eventually become very influential in my development as a scientist. But more on that to come soon.

As the summer internship was nearing completion and upon finding that the pilot experiments were extremely successful, I raised the possibility with Dr. Wallisch of replicating and extending our summer project as my undergraduate senior thesis at Union College. He agreed to the idea. Upon request, Union granted me special permission to be co-advised by Dr. Wallisch and a member of the Union psychology department, Dr. Cay Anderson-Hanley. Upon a very successful senior thesis project (received an A and found very interesting results), Dr. Wallisch and I decided to continue the project post-graduation by including additional experiments.

In addition to working on the visual attention project with Dr. Wallisch, during the fall of 2015, I began volunteering with NYU cognitive neuroscience professor, Zoran Jospovic Ph.D., in the EEG lab of The Non-Duality Institute (NDI), his non-profit foundation for the neuroscientific scientific study of meditation. My task was to learn to write programs for analyzing EEG data so that we could analyze neural data from people while they practice meditation. Dr. Josipovic challenged me to grow as a scientist and programmer, he also created several instrumental opportunities for me. Of note was him introducing me to Lucia Melloni, Ph.D., who conducted research on the neuroscience of consciousness.

In 2016 I began an internship with Dr. Melloni in the Cognitive Neurophysiology Lab of NYU Langone medical school. Our project involved investigating the neural correlates of visual consciousness. My internship responsibilities included managing and expanding a custom pipeline to analyze neural data recorded from electrodes implanted in the brains of patients who have treatment-resistant epilepsy. Specifically, I was to create programs for analyzing the data from patients who, upon having parts of their brains removed during resection surgery as a last attempt to get control of life-debilitating seizures, woke up experiencing 'blindsight'. That is, they could adequately interpret visual information without experiencing anything in their visual field. My internship with Dr. Melloni was an incredibly rewarding growing experience, both as a neural data scientist and as a programmer.

In 2017 upon completion of my internship with Dr. Melloni, I was hired as a clinical research coordinator by NYU Langone health. My job entailed me splitting my week between NYU Langone's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center (CEC) under the supervision of its famed director, Orrin Devinsky M.D., and one of its partner labs, the Epilepsy and Cognition Lab at the Manhattan VA Hospital, under the supervision of Beth Leeman-Markowski M.D. Being the only employee of the Epilepsy and Cognition lab, having no interns or research assistants to help, my work at the VA hospital required me to manage the majority of administrative and scientific aspects of the lab. Everything from answering voicemails, programming experiments, subject recruitment, running the Eye-tracker, testing subjects, scoring results, ect. Many of my duties at the VA position were simply at odds with my strengths, skill sets, interests (I am not interested in the administrative management of a lab), and, ultimately, my career goals. However, on the contrary, my days working at the CEC were, for the most part, enriching. I performed data entry and coordination for clinical trials, one of which involved the treatment of childhood seizures with cannabidiol (CBD) oil. Further, I co-authored an article published in, Neurology®. The study involved the exploratory "off-label" use of a weight-loss medication to treat certain drug-resistant presentations f epilepsy. I was responsible for data analysis, writing the results, and creating the figures.

Although aspects of my job were extremely rewarding, it began to wane on me that overall my responsibilities were much more administrative and organizational than where my true talents and passions resided, which is in quantitative, analytic, and creative work. Thus I decided to leave this position to focus on completing my unfinished research projects and pursue work more congruent with my professional goals and intellectual passions. On one of my last days of being employed at the CEC I had a brief but extremely influential conversation with one of the physicians there, Daniel Friedman, MD. I was informing Dr. Friedman that I would be leaving the CEC, and near the end of our talk, he suggested, based on my skills and his impression of working with me, that I should focus on a career in neural data science rather than neuroscience. Until that moment, I was instead determined to pursue a Ph.D. in neuroscience. After considering our conversation and other factors, I decided to narrow my focus from pursuing general neuroscience to pursuing a PhD in data science, specializing in the analysis of cognitive neurophysiological data .

One of the primary goals I had upon leaving my full-time job at the CEC was to finish my extensive, multi-year, multi-experiment project on visual attention with Dr. Wallisch. We worked on this project until 2019, at which point we submitted it to a top journal for peer review, where it currently resides. At present, I cannot divulge more details about the project.

Upon completing our project on visual attention, Dr. Wallisch and I began undertaking two additional projects. Briefly, we were the first to describe principles used for purposefully producing ambiguous color illusions like "#TheSneakers" and "#theDress" . Despite several years of effort from labs around the world to create an ambiguous color illusion in a principled way, until our report, these types of ambiguous color phenomena were simply arising by accident from poorly illuminated cell phone images being posted to the internet. We are the first to report methods sufficient for causing dramatic disagreement between observers. Our work on this project became the subject of two Scientific American articles (article 1 & article 2 ), a BuzzFeed article, and a two-part feature on the You Are Not So Smart Podcast (part 1 & part 2). We also gave a talk for a Think and Drink lecture series in NYC titled, "The Roots of disagreement", where we presented our research on the principles of perceptual disagreement and outlined how we actually went about creating the illusion.

Our other project involved a novel class of visual illusion, which I discovered while creating a logo for my art and design company, Recursia, LLC. The illusion involves illusory ray-like beams to appear for most observers. Dr. Wallisch and I experimentally investigated the illusion's principles and co-authored an article (currently in peer-review) on it. A pre-print version of the article can be found here.

In all the various contexts over the past six years, from intern supervisor to senior thesis advisor, to collaborator and general scientific mentor, it has been a great privilege of mine to have been trained in programming, proper research methods, the wise use of statistics, data analysis, and scientific writing by Dr. Wallisch. His mentoring and collaboration has been instrumental in my growth from a young neuroscience student into a researcher capable of professional, scientific investigation, elegant programming, and sophisticated statistical thinking. The experiences and scientific philosophy I gained over our several projects will serve me well in my future endeavors.

While working on my projects with Dr. Wallisch, I also voluntarily collaborated with the CEC as a data analyst and helped co-author two articles on Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP), both of which were published in Neurology®. One of the articles, Socioeconomic disparities in SUDEP in the US, was the featured article on the cover of the June 16th, 2020 volume of Neurology®.

The responsibility of working with medical data and programming custom analysis pipelines for projects that directly help improve the quality of life allowed me to experience first hand the positive impact a skilled data scientist can have. Beyond co-authoring three articles published in Neurology® and gaining useful data science and research experience, my work with the CEC cemented my decision to pursue a career path focused on applying data science in ways that help improve the general the quality of life of people and contribute to the scientific literature.

Along with my collaborations with the CEC and Dr. Wallisch, as a way of further developing my neural data science skills, I re-began working with Dr. Josipovic at the Non-Duality Institute by assisting with the EEG equipment set-up and managing the analysis code pipeline. Beyond managing and creating the analysis pipeline, I have spent time developing custom graphical user interfaces for the lab to better streamline and systematize our work.

Currently, I am seeking a new full-time position quantitative position in NYC, which leverages some or all of my varied skill sets.

Although the above only provides overviews of notable experiences making up my professional background, they hopefully illustrate my love and dedication to the scientific investigation as well as my capacity to work at a professional level with multiple forms of data across various disciplines.

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