This is your brain on math: Applying mathematics to the study of neuroscience wins Governor General’s Gold Medal for PhD student
Dr. Leonard Maler of the uOttawa Faculty of Medicine says award-winning graduate Dr. Stephen Clarke may be one of the best students to ever grace his lab – and one of the brightest talents he has ever seen.
This spring, the University presented Dr. Clarke with a Governor General’s Gold Medal for his PhD thesis, a culmination of his work in the Maler lab examining the biology of neurological function from a mathematics perspective. His groundbreaking research has successfully applied math to help understand how networks of brain cells can hold a sensory stimulus in ‘focus.’
The Maler lab explores the mathematical operations behind the brain’s function, with Clarke himself studying weakly electric fish to investigate how sensory input is coded by brain cells to extract information about the location and speed of moving objects.
By viewing neuroscience through the lens of mathematics and signal processing, Clarke arrived at a general principle explaining how the brain and body can work in concert to optimally encode the position of an object moving in the space surrounding an animal.
Maler describes a truly novel discovery of Clarke’s: that motion perception is not a ‘feedforward chain’ of sensory (e.g., retinal) input to brain to final perception, but rather a continuous loop of feedback between creature and environment. The discovery resulted in a paper for Clarke, and was validated by another paper appearing around the same time that suggested the exact same principle in the visual and touch senses of humans.
“Stephen’s four thesis papers have been outstanding for their novelty and coherence,” says Maler, whose lab falls under the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and is part of the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute (uOBMRI). “He was a wonderful, brilliant student.”
The Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine encompasses much more than its namesake, says Clarke, highlighting a number of labs that embrace a system-level engineering approach, as well as a strong collaboration with the Department of Physics. “It was a great opportunity to study neuroscience in this interdisciplinary environment, as well as witness first-hand the tremendous efforts of uOttawa researchers dedicated to finding cures and treatments for a wide range of neurological problems, including stroke.”
Although the direct clinical impact of basic science research like Dr. Clarke’s thesis may appear a bit obscure, understanding the general mathematical nature of the ‘neural code’ allows for better design of medical devices that can openly communicate with the brain and, eventually, help it reorganize itself after injury or avoid pathological activity patterns associated with mental illness.
As part of his postdoctoral training, Dr. Clarke is now in California investigating how brain-computer interfaces can be used to diagnose and treat the effects of brain trauma, under the guidance of Professor Paul Nuyujukian, a polymathic MD/PhD and neural prosthesis expert at Stanford University. By demonstrating a compelling therapeutic approach for post-stroke rehabilitation, their work is anticipated to be a significant step forward for neurology in the new era of bioelectric medicine.
Dr. Maler, a distinguished professor, is himself a winner of some recent prestige, having received the NSERC Brockhouse Canada Prize in 2017 alongside Dr. André Longtin. He hopes a big talent like Dr. Clarke can be convinced to return to Canada for his future research.
The future is bright for interdisciplinary researchers like Clarke, Maler believes. As a brilliant Canadian who hopes to bridge basic science and translational medicine, he says, one can only hope he finds continued success in Canada.
The Governor General’s Gold Medals are presented by the uOttawa Office of the Vice-Provost, Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies for doctoral theses at the convocation ceremony in June.
Three gold medals are awarded to the best doctoral thesis, one in each of the following branches: Arts, Social Sciences, Law and Education; Sciences and Engineering; and Health Sciences, Medicine and Interdisciplinary programs.
Dr. Clarke’s medal was awarded in the latter category.