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Researcher of the Month

December 2014

Wilka CarvalhoWilka Carvalho
Physics major, Class of 2015
CSTEP & LSAMP Programs

Research Mentors: 
Dr. Axel Drees, Physics & Astronomy; Dr. Giancarlo La Camera, Neurobiology & Behavior

I wanted to utilize my time in college to the best that I could, reflects Wilka Carvalho, a Physics major (class of 2015) who embodies what experiential learning is all about. Since day 1 at SB, he has taken every opportunity to augment his learning through research experiences, both on and off campus; and his love of learning is readily apparent to anyone he meets. For Wilka, Learning things is rewarding, and a lot of fun – especially learning things that are confusing.”

Since sophomore year, Wilka has been working in the Experimental Nuclear and Heavy Ion Physics Group of Dr. Axel Drees in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, developing libraries in C++ that model and simulate data from an internally reflected Cherenkov light (DIRC) particle detector. He also this fall began working on an independent research project with Dr. Giancarlo La Camera in Neurobiology — performing time-series analyses of neural data. This past summer, Wilka was in Pasadena, CA at the California Institute of Technology as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute/HHMI MURF Fellow in the Emotion and Social Cognition Laboratory of Dr. Ralph Adolphs. The previous summer, he participated in an REU program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, MN, doing work in the Neuromodulation Research and Technology Laboratory of Dr. Matt Johnson. And the summer of 2012, after freshman year, Wilka participated in an engineering research program at National Central University in Taiwan. 

Wilka spent much of his early childhood in Bolivia and his first language was Quechua. He returned to Brooklyn, NY, his birthplace, as a 1st grader. He credits his mother for encouraging STEM activities through his pre-college years, as well as the teachers who worked with him at Brooklyn Technical High School and provided him with a strong foundation in physics.

At SB, Wilka is a Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Scholar and C-STEP participant, and a recipient of the NSF-Scholarship for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S-STEM). Wilka has been involved as a math and physics tutor for students in the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), and this coming spring will be serving as a teacher/mentor in SB's new NIH-funded Bio-Math learning center. He has also served as a student assistant for Undergraduate College facilities. Wilka is a member of the Sigma Pi Sigma Physics honors society and the Society of Physics. He is proficient in C++, Python, MATLAB, JavaScript and Fortran95—and developed many of his programming skills from working with Alan Dion in Axel Drees’ group, as well as from physics coursework. 

Reflecting back on his varied research experiences, he notes that his research experiences were of tremendous value in refining his interests, and in preparing him for the future: “I really got to develop my interests and get experience relevant to my field and towards pursuing graduate school. I really grown as a researcher… He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical neuroscience, and to build on his knowledge as a physics major, and his exploration in fields such as applied mathematics and computer science, to apply topics such as network theory and computational complexity towards understanding the brain. 

The Interview:

Karen: Tell me about your current research at SB.
Wilka: I’ve been working with Professor Axel Drees since spring of my sophomore year. We’re modeling a Detection of internally reflected Cherenkov light (DIRC) particle detector. Basically we model the detector, simulate particles traversing through some medium and then analyze the resulting projection of the radiation of the particles on the detector surface. Right now we are getting into identifying particles that traverse the medium, and finding how efficient we are and how capable the detector will be for the collisions at the RHIC at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

I’ve also just begun to work in the Neurobiology Dept. with Professor Giancarlo La Camera. Putting it very simply – we perform spectral analyses on neural signals to look for temporal patterns. I’m very excited to begin this work. I had become interested in the field of computational/ theoretical neuroscience about two years ago when I was researching summer programs. When I initially looked up to see who we had in our school doing this type of work, I learned about Professor La Camera and contacted him.  At the time, I didn’t have that much experience with programing, or with analytical techniques. So on his recommendation, I took AMS/BIO332, got some more experience (through summer programs at Minnesota and CalTech), and came back to him as a senior— ready to start working on a project with him. 

Tell me a little about your recent summer experience.
This summer, I was in Pasadena, at CalTech. When I applied for the MURF program, I had to talk about my research interests and list at least 3 faculty who I wanted to work with and Dr. Ralph Adolphs was on my list, and that was the person I was assigned to. He is more on the behavioral side of cognitive neuroscience so my project was on studying the process by which people infer traits about other people. We devised an experiment to study the role of the Attribution Process on Theory of the Mind—and I became involved with writing a web application. I was tasked with that because I’m a relatively proficient programmer.

Did you learn programming early on? 
The physics major requires programming--so I gained a little experience there with Physics 277, Computation in Physics and Astronomy.. But I really learned a majority of my programming skills from my research project in Axel Drees’ group. When I started, they told me “we want you to model a DIRC detector and we want to use the data analysis framework ROOT, so you’ll need to learn C++.” So I learned through the project. One of the research professors I work with, Alan Dion, has been phenomenal. Even to today, we spend a lot of time talking about physics, math and computer science – not just programming but also theory. With learning how to program, he was very instructive. How I should program, how I should think in a way that’s beneficial for programming
Sometimes students I meet tell me how in the beginning of their research they’re tasked with trivial tasks. But it’s hard to find trivial tasks that involve programming. You learn about algorithms being used, and you get a lot of skills that are pretty useful in terms of thinking abstractly and planning out large scale projects. So I would definitely encourage more students to learn programming – it’s so useful – for everything.

Was this summer experience at Caltech your first experience in the neuroscience field?
No – I had also participated in a program in summer 2013 at the University of Minnesota – where we developed a library in Python that interacted with NEURON to simulate Deep Brain Stimulation in a neuron linked to Parkinson’s disease.

You’ve been active about seeking out opportunities!
LSAMP, which I’ve been part of since I started at SB, has been tremendously helpful in pursuing research and making me aware of all the opportunities that are available to me. Paul Siegel is very supportive and very encouraging. I wouldn’t have learned about a lot of opportunities – like going to Taiwan for an engineering experience in summer 2012 – if it wasn’t for Paul. I wouldn’t have broken into research if it wasn’t for LSAMP.

What’s funny is that I was somewhat of a slacker in high school—despite the fact that my mother had been an advocate of seeking out extra curricular opportunities. At the time I didn’t want to listen and it hurt me in the long run. I realized that I didn’t achieve what I thought I would achieve in high school. So I thought, I cannot make the same mistake again. When I came to college, I decided that I had to pursue my interests and research to build my profile and build myself. You can’t just appear smart. You have to be motivated and show effort and show that you are a go-getter. It’s good for me to push myself this way. And that’s what I was going for. I wanted to utilize my time in college to the best that I could.

What do you like most about research? What draws you to seek out these experiences?
Learning things is rewarding, and a lot of fun – especially learning things that are confusing. I like that once it’s no longer confusing—it is integrated into my model for how the world works.
Also one of the things I really enjoy with research experiences is just the interaction you get. I’ve had really great conversations with Alan Dion & Axel Dree’s group here, and with Ralph Adolph’s group at CalTech (particularly the postdocs Bob Spunt and Damian Stanley). It’s a lot of fun to just explore ideas and the researchers also enjoy analyzing /exploring what’s at hand. That’s definitely one of the most enjoyable parts –interacting with and engaging with researchers and feeding off each other to explore some topic.

Sounds like you’ve been in wonderful research environments.
I’ve been fortunate to have had some great research experiences--particularly with Axel Dree’s group here in Physics and at Caltech. And the research has been beneficial in many ways. It’s helped me understand how I work. And what type of environment I work well in. It’s helped me to refine my interests and also broaden my interests. I’m really into computational research. But I wouldn’t have known that 4-5 years ago. I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t done a mixture of computational and experimental research. 

What are your future plans? 
I’m applying now to computational /theoretical neuroscience graduate programs and one graduate program that’s computer science with a brain/neural networks track. I’m interested in the efficiency that the brain achieves in all the computations it does – what it achieves, in its vast complexity, using so little power. I’m interested in understanding the architecture of the brain, and in learning algorithms that the brain uses for pattern recognition. 

That’s interesting that you came to computational neuroscience field through the physics major.
My mentor, Dr. La Camera in Neurobiology, actually started with a background physics too. I’ve long looked to physics as the way to understand the world. I’d also mention that as a freshman that I took a Philosophy course in my first semester here that influenced me. One of the last essays of the course was, “What is the locus of the person?” I had always been very interested in behavior and the brain. In this essay, it was one of the first times where I used a specifically quantitative approach to analyzing the brain. I had a lot of fun writing the essay. And I continued to think about it. And I eventually decided I’m going to pursue physics to study the brain.   

So is there much of a connection between your research and your classes? Has being involved in research enhanced your education? 
So much. Before I went to Minnesota (in spring 2013) I took that computational neuroscience class-AMS/BIO 332. The very same models that we’d studied in the class were used to study the brain in that lab. So I got to explore more during the research opportunity and see its relevance in the world. It went from magic to reality.

The research has also just helped to enhance my thinking for my classes. I have a lot of discussions, for example, with Alan Dion through which I’ve become a lot more interested in particle physics and nuclear physics. I don’t plan to pursue it but I’m more engaged by those topics when they come up in my coursework. I follow them more quickly. I’m used to talking about them, thinking about them. 

Do you have advice for students?
First-explore a variety of fields and see what interests you. When you find something that captivates your mind, pursue it. Read about it. If the interest persists, find a faculty mentor and ask, can I work with you. Eventually you’ll get a bite and you can start working with them.
Also, you need to just realize that there can be times, especially in the beginning, that are just incredibly frustrating. When you do programming, for example, there is a lot of time when it doesn’t run correctly or doesn’t produce the results that you want. 90% of the time you are staring at your code – asking why it’s not producing the result you want. The rest of the time –it does what you want and it feels incredibly rewarding. This happens less and less as you gain skill and experience.

I understand you also do tutoring.
Yes, I tutor for EOP. Calculus and physics. There is a joy that comes with teaching. I try not to tell solutions right away but really see how the student is approaching the problem. That’s how my research mentors work with me – so that I can learn to be more independent and how to solve problems on my own.
For physics, I had phenomenal teachers in high school. I was really fortunate. They taught me a few approaches to problem solving that have proved to be useful to this day. I try to teach the students that as well. I hope it has the same effect on them that it had on me. If it wasn’t for my teacher for Physics B, I wouldn’t be a physics major.   

Have you had the opportunity to do any formal research presentations? 
I presented a poster at the end of the summer programs, and at URECA last semester. I also presented at the CSTEP conference this last year up in the Adirondacks. That was fun. That was really nice too because I’ve been in some environments where there are really not of people who are like me—black and Hispanic. So at CSTEP it was nice to see all the black and Hispanic students who are encouraged and currently doing research.

What qualities, would you say, are most helpful for research?
The main thing you have to have is just…curiosity. And diligence. Those two things.


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