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My Journey: From Soccer Dreams to a Passion for Science

Updated: May 22, 2023

Soccer was a significant part of my life throughout my childhood and teenage years. I was that kid practicing 4-6 days a week, year-round . By the time I was 15, I had played soccer in different parts of the United States, Bolivia, Iceland, and Sweden. My ultimate dream was to become a professional goalkeeper for Manchester United. This ambition led me to attend St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, New Jersey, a school renowned for its exceptional soccer program.

However, St. Benedict's Prep offered more than just a chance to excel in soccer. It was here that my passion for science was ignited. My first hands-on scientific project was in my freshman year for a school-wide science fair. Despite some roadblocks, I ended up creating a powerful electromagnet to demonstrate the properties of electromagnetism. Not only did I win the fair, but I also discovered a deep-seated interest and aptitude for science.

In the summer of 2010, between my sophomore and junior years, I was fortunate enough to be accepted into the Cambridge Scholars Program at Cambridge University, England. The program offered three courses of my choice: parliamentary debate, British cultural history, and cognitive neuroscience. The first two provided valuable lessons in rhetoric, argumentation, and historical context. However, it was the Cognitive Neuroscience course that had the most profound impact on me. It sparked a fascination with how the brain perceives and interacts with the world, ultimately guiding me towards a career in neuroscience.

By the time I reached my senior year of high school, my focus had shifted significantly from athletics to scientific and philosophical exploration. Despite being talented at soccer and playing alongside some of the best young players in the country, I decided to stop playing competitively to concentrate on my studies.

After graduating from St. Benedict's Prep in June 2011, I enrolled at Union College in Schenectady, New York, in September. I chose to major in cognitive neuroscience and minor in philosophy. Union College, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration, provided me with a robust, multidisciplinary liberal arts education. This exposure to various disciplines and the challenge to find connections between seemingly unrelated subjects had a profound impact on my intellectual development.

As it happened, my neuroscience advisor at Union College was Christopher Chabris, Ph.D., co-author of the globally renowned psychology study and the subsequent book it inspired, "The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us." This was the same study that initially sparked my curiosity in neuroscience years prior. Prof. Chabris, as both my advisor and professor, played a crucial role in establishing my foundational understanding of cognitive neuroscientific theory and practice.

In the summer of 2013, I embarked on an internship at the Motor Control Lab at Ohio University, under the guidance of James Thomas, Ph.D., P.T. I was assigned to "The RELIEF study," an NIH-funded double-blind randomized controlled trial exploring innovative non-invasive interventions for chronic lower lumbar pain. This experience allowed me to work hands-on with advanced techniques like electromyography (EMG) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). More than that, it reinforced my aspiration to be a scientific researcher, striving to improve people's quality of life. Dr. Thomas left me with the invaluable advice: "If you want to do cutting-edge research, you need to master programming" – a lesson that truly sunk in by the following winter.

At the start of my third year at Union College, Prof. Chabris introduced me to his NYU colleague, Pascal Wallisch, Ph.D., an expert in cognitive psychological and neurophysiological data analysis. Following this introduction, I had the opportunity to intern at the Cognition and Perception Lab at NYU Center for Neural Science under Dr. Wallisch's supervision in the summer of 2014. This involved piloting experiments for a study on visual attention. To prepare, I spent the months leading up to the internship self-teaching MATLAB programming using Dr. Wallisch's textbook, "MATLAB for Neuroscientists."

This internship at NYU greatly enriched my experience and understanding of the field. For the first time, I was deeply involved in designing a study, collecting and analyzing psychophysical data, and creating publishable figures. I was introduced to Zoran Josipovic, Ph.D., another NYU professor who would later significantly influence my development as a scientist. But more on that later.

As my summer internship was drawing to a close, and given the promising results from the pilot experiments, I proposed the idea of developing our project further for my undergraduate senior thesis at Union College. Dr. Wallisch agreed, and Union College provided special permission for co-supervision of my thesis by Dr. Wallisch and a faculty member from Union's psychology department, Dr. Cay Anderson-Hanley. The senior thesis project not only yielded fascinating results but also was a great success, earning an A grade. After graduation, Dr. Wallisch and I decided to extend the project further with additional experiments.

In parallel, during the fall of 2015, I started volunteering with Zoran Jospovic, Ph.D., an NYU cognitive neuroscience professor, at The Non-Duality Institute (NDI) EEG lab. My assignment was to write programs for EEG data analysis to examine neural data from meditating individuals. Dr. Josipovic not only challenged me to develop as a scientist and programmer but also introduced me to Lucia Melloni, Ph.D., a researcher in neuroscience of consciousness.

In 2016, I interned with Dr. Melloni at the Cognitive Neurophysiology Lab of NYU Langone Medical School. Our project focused on investigating the neural correlates of visual consciousness. I was tasked with managing and extending a custom pipeline to analyze neural data recorded from electrodes implanted in the brains of patients with treatment-resistant epilepsy. These patients, after undergoing brain resection surgery to control debilitating seizures, exhibited 'blindsight', an ability to interpret visual information despite not experiencing a visual field. My internship with Dr. Melloni was a highly enriching experience, contributing significantly to my growth as a neural data scientist and programmer.

Upon completing my internship with Dr. Melloni in 2017, NYU Langone Health hired me as a clinical research coordinator. My role was divided between NYU Langone's Comprehensive Epilepsy Center (CEC) under the supervision of Orrin Devinsky, M.D., and the Epilepsy and Cognition Lab at the Manhattan VA Hospital, supervised by Beth Leeman-Markowski, M.D. As the sole employee of the Epilepsy and Cognition Lab, I managed almost all administrative and scientific aspects of the lab. While some duties didn't align with my strengths and interests, my work at the CEC was generally fulfilling. I contributed to clinical trials, including a study involving cannabidiol (CBD) oil for treating childhood seizures, and co-authored an article published in Neurology®.

Despite the rewarding elements of my job, I felt the need to shift towards work that was more aligned with my passion for quantitative, analytical, and creative work, rather than administrative and organizational tasks. Thus, I decided to leave my position at CEC, focusing on completing my research projects and aligning my career path more closely with my intellectual passions. In a brief but impactful conversation with Daniel Friedman, M.D., he suggested I should focus on a career in neural data science rather than general neuroscience. This advice led me to refine my academic goals, focusing on pursuing a Ph.D. in data science, specializing in the analysis of cognitive neurophysiological data.

One of my primary objectives after leaving CEC was to conclude the extensive visual attention project with Dr. Wallisch. More on this later. While working on initial visual attention project, Dr. Wallisch and I ventured into a new realm of research involving ambiguous color illusions such as "#TheSneakers" and "#theDress". While these kinds of phenomena had been previously observed, they were usually the product of accidental creations due to poor lighting conditions in cell phone images shared on the internet. Our work was the first to elucidate the principles and methods that can be used to deliberately create such illusions, leading to dramatic disagreements in color perception among observers. This research captured the attention of the broader scientific community and the media.

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.

The discovery of a novel class of visual illusion, while I was designing a logo for my art and design company, Recursia, LLC, led to another significant project with Dr. Wallisch. This illusion, which produced illusory ray-like beams for most observers, was experimentally investigated, and we co-authored an article detailing the principles underlying it, currently in peer review. A preprint version of the article is available here.

Since meeting in 2014, my relationship with Dr. Wallisch has evolved from him being my intern supervisor, to senior thesis advisor, to collaborator, and general scientific mentor. It has been a privilege to learn programming, proper research methods, the wise use of statistics, data analysis, and scientific writing under his guidance. His mentorship has been critical in my transformation from a young neuroscience student to a researcher capable of professional scientific investigation, sophisticated programming, and statistical thinking. The scientific philosophy and experiences gained through our collaborations will undoubtedly serve me well in my future endeavors.

In parallel with my work with Dr. Wallisch, I also collaborated voluntarily with the CEC as a data analyst and co-authored two articles on Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy (SUDEP), both of which were published in Neurology®. One of these articles, "Socioeconomic disparities in SUDEP in the US," was the cover feature for the June 16th, 2020 volume of Neurology®.

The responsibility of working with medical data, creating custom analysis pipelines, and contributing to projects that directly improve quality of life underscored the significant positive impact a skilled data scientist can have. Co-authoring three articles published in Neurology®, gaining valuable data science and research experience, and contributing to improving quality of life through my work at the CEC confirmed my decision to focus my career on applying data science to enhancing people's lives and contributing to scientific literature.

In addition to my collaborations with the CEC and Dr. Wallisch, I re-engaged with Dr. Josipovic at the Non-Duality Institute to further develop my neural data science skills. My role involved assisting with EEG equipment set-up and managing the analysis code pipeline. Beyond managing and creating the analysis pipeline, I also developed custom graphical user interfaces for the lab to streamline and systematize our work.

On the personal front, I have some delightful news to share. I got married to Esma Cihan, M.D. (now Esma Karlovich), who was the first author of two of the papers I co-authored on SUDEP. She is currently a medical resident at Columbia University, training to become a neuropathologist.

My work continues to receive significant recognition. My paper, "Scintillating Starbursts: Concentric Star Polygons Induce Illusory Ray Patterns," has received substantial attention, currently ranking in the top 5% of all research outputs ever tracked by Altmetric, the leader in measuring the quality and quantity of online attention to academic publications.

Moreover, the Crocs and Socks illusion, which I co-created with Dr.Wallisch, is now the focus of an entire chapter in the book "HOW MINDS CHANGE" by best-selling author David McRaney. The illusion serves as a powerful example in the book, illustrating the profound influence of our experiences and expectations on our perception.

In terms of business, I have managed to automate most aspects of Recursia, my art and design company. This streamlining has allowed me to focus my energy on creative pursuits and customer satisfaction, rather than getting bogged down in operational minutiae.

Professionally, I have embarked on an exciting new chapter. I was hired as a Data Engineer by the Crary Laboratory in the Department of Pathology, Molecular & Cell-Based Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. Here, I am responsible for managing, organizing, and serving a massive repository of whole-slide brain images. Additionally, I am involved in developing machine learning algorithms and models for research in the neuropathology of neurodegenerative disease.

My longest-standing research project, which I began with Dr. Wallisch in 2014, was recently accepted for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). This project on visual attention challenges the widely accepted theory of inattentional blindness, suggesting that people can indeed perceive unexpected stimuli even when they are engrossed in a specific task. Our experiments demonstrated that individuals were more likely to notice unexpected events, contradicting the conventional understanding of inattentional blindness. These findings carry significant implications, particularly in scenarios where this phenomenon has been used to explain accidents and errors. Our study suggests a greater capacity in individuals to detect fast-moving unexpected events, even when their attention is directed elsewhere. This recognition can potentially enhance safety measures in various settings.

Currently my main focus is on Recursia and my work Dr. Crary at Mt. Sinai. I plan to apply for graduate school in fall 2023 to pursue a PhD in data science.

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