Cradling Connections: Unveiling Infant Minds through Neuroimaging

Tanay Poddar, COL ‘ 24, Sanford, FL

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to work under Dr. Hao Huang’s mentorship in the Laboratory for Neural MRI and Brain Connectivity at CHOP. Initially coming in without any specific focus, Dr. Huang immediately saw my potential on his “Asymmetry Project.” Most people don’t know that the brain is actually asymmetrical, with different hemispheres of your brain controlling different aspects of your abilities. In this case, I heavily underappreciated the importance of the left hemisphere with the capabilities of language comprehension. I also had the opportunity to work with Dr. Huang’s neonatal dataset, meaning that this project had the importance of uncovering how language capabilities develop as an infant based on how asymmetrical the brain is. In full honesty, I was overwhelmed by the project and how I could embark on such a journey semi-independently.

However, with the guidance of my PhD student mentor, Tianjia, and her mentor, Dr. Ouyang, I was able to tackle this project piece by piece. At first, I was given a more exploratory task, meaning I had the trust and independence to learn by myself, while also having the ability to reach out for help. Moreover, from the guided literature assigned, I was able to understand what direction I needed to take this project. However, from that came the next hurdle: programming. I have had programming experience, but this was the first time I was taking on a data science project. In all of the buzz words surrounding machine learning, hierarchical clustering, support vector machines, I was completely lost. However, even then, Tianjia was able to support my learning by sending online links to help me learn the true meaning and application of all these buzz words. I went from making excel spreadsheets to making unsupervised and supervised machine learning models in a matter of weeks.

Eventually, the big picture of the project was finally clarified. We could track the asymmetry of the brain over time and localize it to the regions known for language comprehension. Later, using data already collected, we could try and predict how much the asymmetry contributed to language comprehension, and specifically which regions of the brain. Even when I thought that this was a good amount of experience that I gained, Dr. Ouyang surprised me even further by telling me and Tianjia that we would get to write a publication on what we discovered, and having almost minimal writing experience, this would be a monumental step in my learning process.

Beyond research, I was also able to explore in person volunteering opportunities in Philadelphia, such as volunteering at the HMS school for children with cerebral palsy. All in all, this was a very exciting experience, and none of this would have been possible without career services funding, which gave me a massive opportunity to gain the technical skills I need to conduct research and provide the in-person inspiration I needed to continue research in the future.

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series her

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Career Services