Eva Dyer wants to know what is happening in her brain when she plucks the strings and hears the resonance of the hollow-bodied instrument in her hands, or what happens when she reaches for a cup of coffee on the table and blows on the hot liquid before tasting it.
So many things occur in those few seconds — perception, actions based on countless subconscious experiences, sensations — and all are orchestrated through the coordinated activity of hundreds of thousands of neurons.
Dyer, a computational neuroscientist, wants to understand that symphony of neural activity. And the National Science Foundation (NSF) is helping her with a Faculty Early Career Development Award – or CAREER award. The NSF’s most prestigious award for young researchers, the five-year grant helps establish a foundation for a lifetime of integrated work in research and education.
“This is a great surprise and really exciting for my lab. On a personal level, the CAREER is a great reflection on the work we’ve been doing monitoring large populations of neurons in different regions of the brain,” said Dyer, assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University.
As principal investigator of the Neural Data Science Lab (or NerDS Lab), Dyer’s work has blurred the line between machine learning and neuroscience. Her lab has been at the forefront of advances in neural recording and gathering data. She wants to use the CAREER award to address the next challenge.
“With all these massive datasets we now have, it’s time for us to mine it — to make sense of it all,” Dyer said.
Her CAREER project, funded with $500,000 over the next five years, will focus will be on developing new machine learning methods to map what is happening between the neural activity that we never see and the complex behaviors that we seem to perform with ease. Like drinking a cup of coffee.
“We can use these new approaches to better understand neural computation, or compare neural activity between individuals,” Dyer said. “Then we can create dynamic models that accurately capture the changing nature of the brain over time as a result of aging or disease.”
Dyer’s CAREER Award is the latest in a flurry of impressive honors and awards that have come her way in recent years.
She was one of three researchers in the U.S. to receive a McKnight Technological Innovations in Neuroscience Award in 2020. Then her lab won its first National Institutes of Health R01 grant, in the form of a BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Award.
Also, as part of a growing community of researchers at Georgia Tech working in computational neuroscience, Dyer is a sought-after collaborator. She recently became co-principal investigator of another NSF-supported project kicking off in October that includes principal investigator Vidya Muthakumar, assistant professor in Tech’s Schools of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Industrial and Systems Engineering, and other researchers from Georgia Tech and the University of Maryland.
Like much of Dyer's work, including the CAREER project (which also kicks off in October), the work will involve the development of ew machine learning tools, innovations, she said, "that lie at the heart of a lot of our recent innovations in decoding brain states."