Vinay Jayaram, PhD Student
Hometown: Phoenix, AZ, USA
What are you working on?
I'm interested in how humans can communicate with computers directly using their brains. For healthy individuals it's not very crucial—we can always just type with our finger—but paralyzed people or people with muscular diseases can't move anything any more, and for these people a fast brain-computer interface is the difference between being trapped in their own bodies and being able to interact with the world again. One major problem right now is that we need to re-train our devices every time someone wants to use them, and it's my current project to figure out ways to get around this.
Why is it interesting?
It's fascinating to me that this field is even possible. Before I came to Tuebingen I studied neurobiology, so I was used to thinking of the brain as this massive, complex group of neurons that all have signalling pathways and action potentials and a thousand other biological details. But now I don't get to deal directly with neurons any more—we deal with non-invasive signals. Instead of cells in a dish I work with electrical potentials recorded on the scalp thousands of times a second. Yet somehow, if I write the right program, I can still figure out what the neurons were doing.
What do you like most about being a scientist?
I love the freedom this job offers me. I have a few years to work on a problem that very few other people are working on, and within this scope I'm essentially unrestricted, especially since most of my work is writing and testing algorithms. If I have an idea then I can just code it up and run it, and if it works then I know exactly how this will be helpful to people in practice.
Your favorite thing outside of science is...
Outside of science I really love cooking. My job is mostly about coding and thinking of new ways of solving a particular problem, so the physicality of cooking is something I really love. No way to undo what you've done, but as many do-overs as you can stomach (and when you've done well, you always know it). Cooking for other people is a satisfying way of testing out the skills I develop in my apartment's kitchen.
Your favorite spot in Tuebingen is...
I think I have too many favorites to talk about all of them... there are some really gorgeous nooks and crannies sprinkled throughout the city. Maybe it's surprising, but the Max Planck campus is actually pretty high on the list. When the weather's good, we go up to the roof to drink beer and relax on Fridays—it's pretty high, so there's a good view of the city and surroundings. Looking out over the hills as the clouds roll by, a nice beer in hand, is a fantastic way to end the week.