MU Engineering Ph.D. student earns NSF Graduate Research Fellowship


“My research proposal is about building models of the brain, so that’s kind of like creating a video game where you can go in and explore the brain without actually doing it experimentally,” Ben Latimer explained. “There are a lot of things about the brain that we want to know, but we can’t necessarily do experimentally. So, we do that through computation.”

The prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship looks to award academics for broad impacts and intellectual merit — both of which recipient and third year Ph.D. student Ben Latimer exemplify.

The program, which honors outstanding work in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, awards research-based master’s and doctoral students such as Latimer. Pursuing his degree in electrical and computer engineering, Latimer submitted his proposal around October 2017.

“My research proposal is about building models of the brain, so that’s kind of like creating a video game where you can go in and explore the brain without actually doing it experimentally,” he explained. “There are a lot of things about the brain that we want to know, but we can’t necessarily do experimentally. So, we do that through computation.”

According to Latimer, there were two requirements for the initial application process — a personal and research statement. For the research portion, he included an extensive proposal on his plans in computational neuroscience, using the rodent brain and how it learns fear.

“Rodents are typically a model system for humans,” he continued of the proposal. “We want to know how fear and anxiety are represented in the brain and what we can do to change it. So, people who suffer from PTSD or anxiety and things like that can be treated.”

Meanwhile, for Latimer’s personal statement, he touched on his own impact in the science community. As a part of LEGO robotics for kids, he coordinates the College’s camps and conducts outreach in elementary schools.

“They want to see your broader impact, which means showing you’re bringing science to the masses, to your community and to the people outside of the university,” he said.

Latimer also notes the financial freedom he’s experience since receiving the honor — an aspect of the award that has allowed him to focus on his research further.

“Typically, grad students have to be a teaching assistant, which I did for the first two years,” he continued. “So, that takes a lot of time. My support is so much more generous than what I would get otherwise.”

It’s allowed him to spend more time developing studies in computational neuroscience. Now, his latest work has shifted towards oscillations in the brain and how those might be tied to behavior. And while his goals are extensive in the field, Latimer is also passionate about other students pursuing the NSF fellowship.

“I encourage people to apply for it,” he said. “Especially people who are first generation college students or any type of minority. It makes applying to a grad school a lot easier.”



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