Report about Research Visit at Emory University, USA

Jonas Braun, 21.02.2019

During the summer of 2018 I joined Prof. Chethan Pandarinath’s Systems Neural Engineering Lab at the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University in Atlanta, USA, as a summer research intern. The lab is located at the Emory campus and is working on “understanding how large populations of neurons in the brain perform computations and represent intention” (from snel.gatech.edu). I got in contact with Prof. Pandarinath through our program director Prof. Jakob Macke who had collaborated with him before. The lab has both experimental facilities, where they conduct rodent experiments, and large clusters for computational analysis. My work was with the computational side of the group and I was collaborating mostly with one PhD student, Lahiru, and a postdoc, Reza.

One major project of the group is in the exciting field of motor control. The project aims to contribute to an understanding of how the brain, or more specifically primary motor cortex, drives muscles and thereby movement. In a recent study they presented a method called Latent Factor Analysis via Dynamical Systems, short LFADS (Pandarinath et al, Nature Methods 2018), which proved to be an effective way to model the neuronal dynamics underlying computations in motor cortex. During my project I was working on applying this method to muscle activity and was modelling how muscles drive behaviour.

Emory and Georgia Tech provide a vibrant scientific atmosphere with very frequent talks and scientific seminars, often accompanied by free lunches, held by faculty both local and from all over the US. It is remarkable how many exciting talks were hosted solely in the field of Neuroscience. A bit of a disadvantage is that some of them are at Georgia Tech which is on the other side of the city but there are free shuttles connecting the two campuses.

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Figure : Free shuttles on the Emory campus with School of Medicine in the background

Atlanta is a huge city and it is of great advantage to have a car to get around. In a major redevelopment project, they opened the beltline, a former train line that is now a walkway connecting beautiful markets and Piedmont park. In the evenings and on weekends it is filled with life and folks on electric scooters try to weave their way through the crowds. In the end of my stay in Atlanta, there was a lantern parade along the beltline with more than 70,000 people bringing handmade lanterns or just watching the colourful spectacle. Whenever I needed to escape the bubble of Atlanta, the huge airport was a good starting point to visit Texas, New Orleans, Canada or Boston and thanks to my flatmates who kindly let me borrow their cars, nearby state parks and the Blue Ridge Parkway were within easy reach, too.

+———————————–+———————————–+ | {w | | idth=“2.9391305774278216in” | idth=“2.547825896762905in” | | height=“2.2043482064741906in”} | height=“2.998564085739283in”} | | | | | Figure 2:Sunset over the Blue | Figure 3: Participating in the | | Ridge Mountains | lantern parade | +———————————–+———————————–+

I truly enjoyed my time in the US in general and the Systems Neural Engineering Lab in particular. I learned a lot about computational modelling and successful collaboration and it was a pleasure to experience a different culture and meet many openminded people. I learned to appreciate the enormous diversity of stunning landscapes wherever I looked and are most certain that I will have to come back soon to make use both of the great research community in the US and to explore more of the countries’ beautiful Natural Parks.