Amy Orsborn

Amy Orsborn, Postdoctoral Researcher
New York University

Life Inside the Lab:

What is your research topic? I study how the brain learns, and how we can engineer therapies to take advantage of the brain’s flexibility to restore damage due to disease and disorders. I focus on the motor system, trying to understand how we learn to perform dexterous movements and how we can restore movement to people with motor disorders.

Specifically, I develop brain machine interfaces (BMIs), which repurpose neural activity in the brain to control a new device. The hope is that BMIs could restore movement to someone with paralysis due to neural damage (e.g. a spinal cord injury) by using the intact portions of their nervous system to control a prosthetic device. The original idea being BMI was to “decode” someone’s intentions to move. But research shows that BMIs also tap into our brains natural abilities to learn. BMIs ask the brain to learn a new motor skill—controlling a prosthetic device rather than your body. I’m interested in understanding how the brain learns this new skill, and how we can “engineer” BMI systems to best take advantage of our brains natural learning abilities.

OrsbornA.jpgDr. Amy Orsborn is a soon to be professor at the University of Washington! Follow her work @amyorz

What was your best day in science? As is likely the case for many scientists, the more I studied my research topic of interest, the more questions I had. I learned a lot about BMIs in my Ph.D., but most of all I learned just how much we (the scientific community) still don’t understand. I also eventually realized that the tools we would need to dig deeper into the problem didn’t quite exist yet. My postdoc research has taken me on a bit of an adventure into a new realm to try to develop some of these tools. Turns out that’s pretty hard. It also involves a whole new skill set I’ve had to develop over the past few years. (It also turned into a new branch of my research interests I didn’t really anticipate!) Recently, we’ve had some major breakthroughs on my project. After two-plus years of effort and focus, and many failures, we got the first “big” data from these experiments. That day—when so much effort finally paid off and I succeeded in a new domain—will be one I remember for a long time.

What was your worst day in science? As I alluded to above, most days in the lab are full of failure. Those days are far more common than the days when everything works as expected. Most are small and you have to let them fade from memory so you can try again tomorrow. One failed day in the lab during my Ph.D. will always stick with me, though, for two reasons. The first is pretty obvious—it was an experiment I’d put a lot of effort into (almost a year of work had lead up to this day!), so it was a huge let-down when things didn’t work as expected. I was holding back tears in the lab. Several beers were had that evening.

But the bigger reason I remember that day is because this failure taught me an important lesson. Every scientist, no matter how smart, fails. Experiments almost never go exactly as planned. The measure of a good scientist is how you handle failure. You have to learn and adapt.

What did you study at university? I majored in Engineering Physics in undergrad. I enjoyed physics a lot in high school and wanted to major in something relatively broad because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do yet. In college I discovered neural engineering and was immediately hooked. I started taking a few classes in biomedical engineering and biology to learn more about the brain. And then shifted to bioengineering for my Ph.D.

What does your average day look like? People have average days? Every day is a bit of an adventure in the lab for me. One of the things I love most about my job is that I get to do so many different things. One day I’m debugging code or designing algorithms, the next I’m designing and 3D printing pieces that will help solve a problem in my experiment, and the next I’m thinking deeply about the brain and designing experiments to test my ideas. The range is huge. It doesn’t lend itself too well to routine.

What are some of the highlights of your career? I was recently selected as one of the L’Oreal for Women in Science fellows for 2016. The program recognizes female postdocs who are not only doing outstanding STEM work, but also work to improve diversity in STEM. The fellows spend a few days together in Washington D.C. meeting with people in science policy and celebrating women in STEM. Meeting the fellows and learning about science policy was one of the most amazing opportunities. It made me feel so honored to be among these amazingly talented women. It was incredibly inspiring. I’ve had a few big career “wins,” but this one was particularly special.

What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? We have a motion capture system to closely track and study people’s movements. We use it to look at how we learn to do dexterous movements with our hands. Hands are complicated and move in intricate ways. Reliably tracking all of our fingers requires a lot of cameras. It’s a massive set-up with 26 cameras. Wrangling the system to work smoothly is not trivial, so depending on the day you ask it might be my least favorite piece of equipment. But when we can track complicated movements in real-time, it’s cool enough to make the struggle worth it.

Life Outside of Lab

Where did you grow up? I grew up primarily in a very small town in Illinois called Port Byron. I’ve been lucky enough to explore the US throughout my scientific training. I’ve lived in the Midwest, the west coast, and the east coast. The only trend in my moves has been going to bigger cities, now ending up in New York. If I want to keep this up, though, I’m going to have to leave the country next.

What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? I really did not think much about careers as a kid. (My parents tell me I really wanted to be a “pay lady”—what I called cashiers—when I was very young. Apparently I thought the item scanners were fun, and thought that the cashiers just got to keep the money people gave them.) Through high school, I was what I’d call an equal-opportunity nerd. I played lots of musical instruments and wrote (bad) poems, but also excelled in math class. I pursued whatever interested me without thinking too much about how it would lead to a career. Thankfully my parents encouraged this sort of exploration. It allowed me to eventually discover scientific research.

What do you do to relax outside of lab? I currently live in New York City, which is such a great place to explore. I try to make a point of taking walks around the city whenever I can. Both for a bit of exercise, and as a way to clear my head of lab-related things. Otherwise, I’m prone to vegging out on the couch watching TV.

Do you have any pets? Nope, alas. But I am a big fan of dog sitting for friends when I get the chance!

Do you have any fun hobbies? I find I always need to have a creative outlet, and it’s taken various forms over the years. All through school continuing into college, I played several musical instruments and was in a variety of different bands. I play much less than I’d like to now, but music is something I will always love.

In graduate school I got very interested in graphic design and scientific illustration. Maybe it was making all the figures for my talks and papers that started it, but it has turned into a new fixation. I worked on a science magazine for much of grad school as a layout editor and art director. We would figure out how to design figures and illustrations to convey complicated concepts in a visually appealing way to go with articles in the magazine. It’s a really fun challenge, and something that’s also really useful in my work. Whenever I can, I love to help colleagues figure out the best way to illustrate their science for publications and talks.

My other big hobby is cooking—particularly baking. It’s a great stress relief to get in the kitchen and make something. It also gives you instant gratification that can sometimes be hard to come by in science! I love projects and learning new skills in the kitchen. My current obsessions are baking bread and making candy.

Big Picture

What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? All throughout my career, my biggest motivator has been my desire to learn and challenge myself. When senior year of college came around, many of my friends were so excited to be done with school and go out into “the real world.” Or were contemplating whether grad school in financial terms (i.e. would it get them a higher paid job). I, meanwhile, couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to take classes and work in labs forever if they could! I saw the opportunity to do research, to explore unknown realms of science, as such a privilege. I was lucky enough to have such a privilege, and was going to make the most of it. 

Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? I spent a lot of time in doctors offices as a child because I have a rare form if congenital scoliosis. I grew up seeing so many children at the doctors and hospitals dealing with very serious physical disabilities. I also have some personal experience with physical limitations and treatments for physical disabilities. These experiences made a very strong impression on me. I have a very deep appreciation and respect for how important movement is to our daily lives. I also have a very deep frustration with treatment options for people with physical disabilities.

My motivations to pursue the specific research questions and applications of my work are very personal. Though it wasn’t something I set out to do explicitly by any means. I’ve never been able to pin-point a moment where I decided to be a scientist. It sort of happened while I wasn’t paying attention. I always just pursued whatever I found interesting and took any opportunity I was offered. While I didn’t follow a deliberate path, I now can’t imagine doing anything else. I ended up exactly where I was meant to be, studying something I find so intellectually fascinating with applications I’m deeply passionate about.

My interest in the brain and how it controls our movements was sparked during college when I took a course on neuroscience. I started looking at neuroscience research and found an amazing new branch of work in neural engineering trying to “tap into” the brain to restore function to people with disabilities. I hadn’t been looking for it, but found a topic that perfectly blends my intellectual curiosity with an application that resonates with me personally. I was hooked.

Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? Science is ultimately about understanding the world so we can solve problems. The scientific community must work to solve problems that are relevant to the world at large. But it’s not as if there’s a list of challenges that need solving set from on high. Much of what scientists and engineers do is decide what problems are interesting and worth addressing. If we want to meet the needs and challenges facing our diverse society, then we need everyone to participate in identifying the right questions. Why would we think half of the population could understand and address the problems facing everyone? Women bring unique perspectives to the scientific community that are so needed.

What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Never be afraid to follow your interests and ask questions. And never be afraid to fail along the way. We (girls, in particular) are too often taught to shy away from failure or trying hard, instead focusing on being smart/talented. But failure is something we should embrace. You should take it as a sign that you’re challenging yourself and growing. You’ve found something worth digging into. Those are the problems worth pursuing.

Are there any women in STEM who are inspiring you right now? There are so many amazing women I’ve met during my career who inspire me every day. And have become fantastic friends/mentors as I continue in science. My other L’Oreal For Women In Science fellows are great examples! The scientists I am inspired by from afar currently are the folks behind Bias Watch Neuro.  (NYT article on it). The project is lead by some outstanding women in neuroscience. They’re doing stellar science. They’re also having a real impact on diversity in STEM by using data and evidence-driven approaches to highlight bias in the field. It’s so great.

What was your biggest challenge during your degree ? As an interdisciplinary researcher at the intersection of two male-dominated fields, the lack of women is very salient to me. In my sub-field, the gender ratios are very skewed. Working in these male-dominated environments, I’ve experienced my fair share of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) biases that all women in science would be familiar with.  Hearing a man repeat something you said a few minutes earlier and getting credit for the idea; having to work twice as hard to be taken seriously by colleagues. The list goes on. While each incident is minor, the net effect can be so draining. They can also leave you feeling less connected—less at home—in your day to day work. And it can be hard to find and create a supportive network of mentors and colleagues. For me, I found this had a particularly strong impact on my self-confidence. Any time things got hard in classes or my research wasn’t going well, I would interpret it as evidence I wasn’t well-suited to science. If you feel at all like an outsider, it’s very easy to internalize failures. It’s something I struggled with a lot, particularly in college. I’ve gradually gotten better at realizing the things I’m doing are just hard, and they’re hard for everyone.  I’ve also found an amazing network of mentors and colleagues who are always ready with advice and support. I’ve also gotten better at spotting biases and trying to head them off at the pass. But these are eternal struggles.


What is your favorite book? I admit I’m not the most avid reader. But books I’ve enjoyed include: non-fiction: The Family That Couldn’t Sleep, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks fiction: The Dud Avocado, Lucky Jim, White Teeth.
What is your favorite desk snack? I am not the best at self-control when it comes to snacks, so I usually avoid having them at my desk. But when I make an exception, it’s usually for a bar of chocolate. (This answer feels like it’s playing so directly into women stereotypes. But I guess stereotypes derive from truth…)
What would you listen to while writing? When I’m writing, I usually gravitate towards slightly moodier/sparse music (e.g. while writing this, I’ve listened to James Blake, Jessie Ware, Laura Mvula, and Solange).
What was your favorite subject in high school? Maybe a toss-up between physics and math.
What is the strangest thing on your desk now? Maybe not the strangest, but definitely the goofiest: I get cold a lot and bought these hand warmers. They keep me warm and make me smile.
Another other fun fact about you: I was the only woman in my undergraduate major in my year. I didn’t realize it until late sophomore year!
Organization nut, or curated chaos? An organization enthusiast who inevitably always devolves into chaos. (Who is somehow always very interested in getting reorganized when there’s something that she wants to procrastinate on.)
What color socks are you wearing? I’m currently wearing one black and one beige sock. I hate sorting socks.

Check out more about Amy’s work!

A few of Amy’s Papers:

  • A paper where we demonstrate that treating brain-machine interfaces as a “two-learner” system could be particularly beneficial for neural prostheses. That is, the brain can learn in concert with machine learning, and the machine learning might be able to “shape” the neural plasticity.
  • A paper where we develop the best-performing brain-machine interface algorithm and explore the mechanisms underlying the improved performance. We show that the rate of control and feedback in a BMI influence performance, and that by making a decoder with a high rate of control you can improve performance beyond the previous state-of-the-art approaches.