Deborah Barany, a third-year student in the new interdepartmental graduate program in Dynamical Neuroscience, is conducting research on how the brain integrates and organizes relevant information to produce successful action. Deborah recently participated in the Grad Slam - a campuswide competition for the best three-minute research talk. Her presentation wowed the audience and judges and she took home one of the top prizes. Deborah has an M.A. in Psychology from UCSB and a B.A. in Neuroscience and Mathematics from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Read on to learn more about Deborah's research and experiences in graduate school.
Tell us a little about your research and how you came to choose the topic.
The overall goal of my research in the Action Lab is to understand how the human brain controls goal-directed movement. My work so far has focused on using fMRI and machine learning algorithms to analyze the patterns of brain activity associated with different components of simple movements (for example, an object’s location, movement direction, or hand posture). By looking at these patterns, we can infer the large-scale representations of movement across many brain regions. Researching questions in motor control with fMRI and other neuroimaging techniques has quite a few practical challenges, but it ultimately allows us to better understand how the brain integrates and organizes relevant information to produce successful action, and how this underlying organization might differ in people with movement disorders.
The simple reason for why I chose this topic is that I wanted a way to combine my interest for sports and music with my interest in science and math. My senior year of high school, I learned about how cognitive neuroscience methods could be used to answer questions related to how athletes learn to move about dynamic environments, and how musicians learn to link specific movements to produce beautiful sound. I was instantly hooked, and knew that I wanted to be involved in that type of research.
What was it like to participate in the Grad Slam? What did you learn from the experience?
The Grad Slam was such a fun experience, although at times a little (a lot) nerve-wracking. But I loved the opportunity to be able to share my research with the community, as well as to hear about all the amazing work being done on campus. I had no idea of the extent and breadth of the graduate student research at UCSB — it is great to have Grad Slam as a platform to facilitate the communication of all these diverse projects in an interesting way.
I learned quite a bit going through each stage of the process. Preparing the presentation really forced me to think about the best way to communicate my research. Hopefully, I can transfer what I’ve learned from Grad Slam to more casual conversations so I don’t get as many blank stares while trying to explain what I do.
I also benefited from attending a professional development workshop that allowed us to practice our presentation and get valuable feedback from other students and staff, including a few of last year’s Grad Slammers. Finally, I realized that it takes a lot of time and effort to be able to craft and deliver a short three-minute talk, but it was definitely worth it to gain the confidence to communicate about neuroscience and to be able to share my excitement for research with a general audience.
What has graduate student life been like for you?
I was lucky in that I came to UCSB as part of a unusually large (and good-looking) incoming cohort for Psychological & Brain Sciences — being able to take the same classes, learn the ropes, and just hang out together really made it easy to adapt to and be comfortable with the grind of graduate student life. I am also grateful to have an outstanding advisor, Dr. Scott Grafton, who allows me the flexibility and resources to explore different experimental ideas while at the same time keeping me set up to succeed.
In the same way, the current and former members in the Action Lab have helped me grow immensely as a scientist — they’re always ready and willing to help when I have a question or when I’m stuck on a problem (which seems like most of the time). In general, I feel like I’m always surrounded by amazing people doing amazing things, so I’m just happy to be a part of it all and enjoy the journey. And the Santa Barbara weather isn’t too shabby, either.
What has been a source of motivation or drive for you in your graduate studies?
My field is still rapidly evolving — it’s difficult to keep up with all the new ideas and methods, but it’s an exciting time to be involved as well. I’m driven by a desire to make meaningful contributions to our understanding of the brain, and I’d like to think that every time I read a new article, learn a new skill, or have a conversation about research, I move one tiny step toward that goal.
In addition, my family (many of whom are scientists) has been a constant source of motivation and support. I especially admire my grandmother, Kate Bárány, who was a muscle physiologist and strong advocate for women in science, and whose life and work I am only beginning to truly appreciate as I move forward in my education.
Name an accomplishment you are most proud of and describe why.
This is mostly due to the recency effect, but I’m proud of completing my first graduate research project. I went into the project knowing very little about how to conduct an fMRI experiment, and how to analyze the data, but I received an incredible amount of mentorship from my collaborators that allowed me to feel somewhat competent every step of the way. There were a good share of frustrating moments, but it was so rewarding to see the project progress from the first pilot subject to the final revision of the paper, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience (see "Feature Interactions Enable Decoding of Sensorimotor Transformations for Goal-Directed Movement"). I’m glad to be done, but mostly because this means I can start all over again with a new project and hopefully be able to apply what I’ve learned.
What do you do to relax? Any hobbies, collections, pastimes, favorite places to go, favorite things to do? Along these same lines, what makes you happy?
I love to play sports, which is probably the closest I’ll ever get to fieldwork in motor control. At UCSB, I’m part of the Psychological & Brain Sciences IM volleyball team (“Bump, Set, Psych”), and I play pickup handball with other graduate students. I try to take advantage of the wonderful Santa Barbara climate, which means playing year-round outdoor tennis, hiking, rock climbing, and (unsuccessfully) surfing. I enjoy playing guitar — either writing songs or playing whatever is currently stuck in my head.
Recently, both because of and in spite of being in graduate school, I’ve been able to travel to and explore various parts of the world with my boyfriend Logan Fiorella. When not traveling, we enjoy going to the movies, partially, if not completely, due to the free popcorn coupons they have at the theaters in Santa Barbara.
What do you hope to be doing 5 or 10 years out of graduate school?
I hope to have an academic position somewhere nice where I can do important research and teach motivated students. Dreaming big.
Do you have any advice for current grad students?
I think I echo a common sentiment in that grad school is all about finding the right balance between work and life outside of work. Almost three years in, I’m still working on finding the right balance. So far I’ve come to realize that if I’m able to get outside of the basement where I work and enjoy the sunshine for just a short time, I usually end up having a good day.