Computational neuroscience PhD Shih-Luen Wang is something of a modern day explorer – using microscopic imaging and computers instead of charts and compasses, he is tracing the connections of neural cells in order to build a map of the most complex computational processor ever conceived: the human brain. “Neural cells are not like other cells in the human body because of how they send signals to one another,” he explains, “And it is because of the way neural cells ‘talk’ to one another that the brain can perform far more complex functions than other organs.”
It is this communication that Wang and his fellow neuroscientists are studying, by investigating the ways that these cells connect and form pathways to interact and transmit information. At present, this is a slow, painstaking process: researchers must image the brain, and then study these image stacks to identify connections and pathways. Wang and his research team hope to accelerate that process.
By developing a complex algorithm to effectively train a computer to perform analysis that would normally require a human observer, but at vastly greater speeds, Wang hopes to be able to accomplish what would otherwise be impossible – a complete map of the neural structure of the brain. “With 100 billion neural cells, creating a map of the whole brain would not be feasible for a human,” he explains, “So we are trying to automate this process by teaching computers to map the neural cells for us.”
Now that he has completed his PhD, Wang is preparing to make the move from academia to industry, where he hopes to work as a data scientist applying his experience with computer-assisted analysis of vast datasets. “I am very interested in complex systems research, where I can try and learn about the function of a large system as a whole by studying its individual elements. So I would like to look for insights in the data we have – in medicine, technology development, there are many industries that benefit from this sort of data-driven research.”