Author Archives: Eleanor Seo

99%Q & 1%A – Part Two

This was the title of my first blog, foreshadowing the ratio of the questions and answers I would gain over the summer. These questions were made apparent within my curiosity-memory project, but more importantly, in the methods and mindsets to which I approach the unknown. 

In my project, my mentor Abby and I had three primary hypotheses—one would be supported, two would be refuted. My mentor and I were mildly stunned by the latter outcomes; the results didn’t corroborate past literature, stumping us during data analysis. Yet after closer examination and a discussion with my PI, Dr. Adcock, I now realize how much continues to remain hidden in the field of research. As research is fundamentally centered around discovery, it is inevitable that we will experience uncertainty in different ways. We can search for an answer, but sometimes the unknown finds you first. As such, we’ve switched just a few gears, and we now hope to examine self-certainty and confidence within our paradigm.

Even with the data disproving our hypotheses, there was truly nothing comparable to the feeling of seeing your results for the first time. For me, the first look was messy, a massive spreadsheet of data that loomed over me; a final boss before obtaining the treasure. Parsing through the data was gratifying, every line of code ultimately leading to a clean graph and a sense of coherence. Only once I’d obtained a graph did I realize the extent of my work this summer, and it was when my laptop spit out that first p-value that I realized that I had stumbled upon discovery. During my interview with Dr. Adcock, she mentioned that there really is nothing like discovery, but only now do I truly understand the extent of her words.

Even so, science isn’t only success. There were days when work was slow, days where I needed help. Collaboration and communication were repeatedly emphasized by Dr. Grunwald, and these qualities were apparent in every faculty talk, every time I asked my mentor to debug my code, and whenever my newfound friends and I would forget a crucial ingredient while making dinner. Through the BSURF programming, I’ve focused my sights. I have a few new goals, such as how I’d like to work in a wet lab setting sometime in the future so that I can experience all that exists in the research field. I have a few new questions, such as do I want to go into academia, or do I want to practice medicine? Do I want to do neurobiology or neurobiology? Do I love working with humans or cells or mice or computers? Yet even with these questions pressing up on me, I’ve become more comfortable with experiencing the unknown. For now, my primary goal is to follow my project through till the end, and I can’t wait to begin the secondary phase once I return for the school year.

I’d like to thank my mentor Abby for her help since the first day I stepped into the lab. She was truly the guiding force behind this project, and I couldn’t have done it without her. I’d like to thank all the members in the lab for their support and encouragement; seeing you all at the poster session truly made my day. Thank you, Dr. Adcock, for taking me in and making my summer research experience possible. Thank you to Anna for the amazing guidance and help over the course of eight weeks, and thank you to Dr. Grunwald for letting us play with/handle your snakes (and of course, being an incredible leader and program director). As I continue to explore new challenges and discoveries, successes and failures, I’ll remember the mentors and the experiences that first propelled me into the unknown.


Find Serendipity First

Our life is but a vector; time is our scalar. Dr. Lefkowitz was a member of “the Class of 1968”, a cohort that was defined by its times while also being a defining force in itself. 

Dr. Lefkowitz never felt a “calling” towards research. He was certain that his love of medicine would result in him becoming a practitioner, and even when he went to medical school, he avoided research electives in favor of clinical classes. He was steadily making his way towards his residency, but again – we are never immune to the mechanisms of the times we exist in. During his residency, he became a part of the “Doctor Draft”, where he left medicine to join the NIH to fulfill his obligated conscription in the Public Health Service during the Vietnam War. 

There, he met the fellow members of his cohort. He spoke of Dr. Harold Varmus, a friend and colleague who conducted research on oncogenes and ultimately spurred the creation of targeted therapeutic drugs; Dr. Varmus would later become the director of the NIH. He spoke of Dr. Michael Brown, who studied the regulation of cholesterol at the receptor level, leading to the development of cholesterol-lowering drugs. Dr. Lefkowitz’s own research centered on receptor biology, most notably the role of G-protein coupled receptors. The studies conducted on these receptors have led to improved drug development, with almost half of all modern prescription pharmaceuticals being based on Dr. Lefkowitz’s first findings. He mentioned the similarity of hormone receptors to rhodopsin receptors, connecting two points in the research timeline – old and new. 

“The Class of 1986”, therefore, was not describing his undergraduate years or medical school cohort. “The Class of 1986” was the group he entered the NIH with, a group that ultimately won nine Nobel Prizes, a group with mentoring lineages only two or three generations away from Schrodinger, Bohr, and Linus Pauling. He told us, budding practitioners and researchers, to choose wisely. Choose wisely, not regarding the name or prestige of the graduate school or medical school, but choose the mentors whose values and approaches you can learn from. “Serendipity seems to favor one scientist over the other,” he stated, alluding to the fact that research may occasionally be fruitless, that science may not care how many hours you put into it. Yet if you find the right mentors, mentors who have experienced serendipity in some way, you may just have a greater chance of finding it too. 

Life doesn’t wait for you to decide, life doesn’t ask you for your preferences before it chooses a different path for you. When Dr. Lefkowitz was asked if he still felt any longing towards medicine, the calling he ultimately had to leave behind, he straightforwardly answered yes. Yet he acknowledged his love of data, his experiences of overcoming failures in research, and how one day he looked into the mirror and realized: “you’ve become a scientist”. As I continue to journey to adulthood, Dr. Lefkowitz’s story of his path to today was a gentle reminder that we are never immune to what life gives us. While I don’t know what my life will end up becoming, I’ll just try to find serendipity first.


Curiosity, the desire for new information, has been shown to encourage exploration and benefit learning. While the relationship between curiosity and episodic memory seems intuitive, the present study examined this relationship with active engagement as a mediating variable. In this study, participants watched videos of continuous line drawings wherein an object was formed as the video progressed. Participants were encouraged to guess frequently during the video regarding their prediction of the final image. After each video concluded, participants reported a final guess and provided subjective ratings of how they experienced the video, including how curious, frustrated, and surprised they felt. A memory test was conducted 24 hours following the first task, in which participants were asked to identify partial images from the videos of the previous task versus novel partial images taken from other unseen videos. It is expected that videos that elicit higher ratings of curiosity will have a higher rate of recall. Videos with more guesses, indicating more active engagement, are also expected to have higher recall. Future experimental conditions will examine how the regulation of agency will further impact curiosity and memory. Delineating the interaction between curiosity and memory may ultimately improve learning in educational settings.

Still Haven’t Found the Elevator Yet

Every morning, I’ll walk into the LSRC and I’ll see stairs—three long, tall flights of stairs I have to walk up in order to get to lab. After making my way to the third floor, I’ll round the corner into the Adcock Lab, set down my things onto my desk, and catch up on the messages in the lab’s Slack page. My mentor Abby will often stop by and we’ll set up a time to meet that day. This meeting will usually regard problems that need trouble-shooting or tasks that need to be done that day, and we’ll discuss what kind of work I’ll need to do for the next steps of the experiment. The daily work I do differs based on the stage the project is at. We first began by creating the experiment itself, a computer-based task. My mentor developed and coded the first task of immediate curiosity on conditional engagement, and I prepared the second task, a memory test. Since the experiment is centered on videos of art and drawings, our memory test essentially consists of comparing screenshots of old videos with new ones—command-shift-4 has now become one of my best friends! I also compiled relevant questionnaires and inputted each question into the task. Since finalizing these parts, we’ve sent out our pilot studies and gathered our first data points—which brings me to the work I do today! 

Since we send out our study in batches, I’ll spend my time cleaning the data received from the latest cohort, such as removing data from participants who didn’t complete their tasks. Our experiment has two-parts, so it’s also important to confirm that the subjects in each pool match each other. I’ll cross-check subject IDs from part one with part two, allowing us to make sure that the subjects who completed both tasks receive their full compensation and eliminating those who have not. 

I’ll then do some preliminary data analysis—mostly just some basic data science manipulations using Python. I’ll first reformat the data sets to look more organized and show only relevant information. I’ll then usually try to map trends through graphical analysis, as well as examine individual outliers, errors, and uncertainties. This way, I can practice my techie skills but also still gain knowledge from the cohort’s data! This is one of my favorite parts of my work, as having more data points strengthens and clarifies trends and brings you one step closer to a completed puzzle. It’s also an incredible feeling to realize that your work is real—the data is tangible, concrete—real!! Some days are slower than others, but that’s research. Research is for discovery, and as long as my little efforts contribute in some way to that truth or that discovery—I’ll be happy. 

Jennifer Aniston, More Like JenniFIRING Action Potentials

Some people may call themselves fans of the iconic sitcom Friends, but how deep into the brain does this love go? In her chalk talk, Catherine detailed her work in the Glickfeld Lab, where she studies the neurobiology behind the visual system. She and her mentor are examining the synaptic organization of the visual cortices, with a particular emphasis on studying the pathways and connections between the primary visual cortex (V1) and higher visual areas (HVAs). While the V1 first processes most, if not all the incoming visual stimuli, it then projects its neurons to HVAs such as the posteromedial (PM), lateromedial (LM), and anterolateral (AM) areas. These HVAs process the finer details of visual stimuli, with special neurons catering to specific types of vision such as motion, converging lines, or color. One neuron might fire rapidly when it receives information that the stimulus is pink, but it might not fire at all when the object is blue. One particular case study, Catherine detailed, was where a woman had a neuron that “lit up”, or “fired”, whenever she was shown a picture of Jennifer Aniston, and wouldn’t light up for pictures of Bill Clinton or any other celebrity. This was both incredibly interesting and incredibly funny to me, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had a Michael Scott neuron in my brain from watching the Office so much!

These unique neurons aren’t the only fascinating neurobiological mechanism in the visual system. Catherine explained surround suppression, another phenomenon that occurs in the visual system. As an incoming visual stimulus’ size increases, a neuron’s firing rate increases, reaches a threshold, and consequently decreases—instead of maintaining a steady increase in firing rate. The mechanism behind this strange occurrence is not yet known, and it is even more intriguing since there are differences in surround suppression. PM is unique to other HVAs, as LM and AM have similar surround suppression rates and magnitudes to V1 while PM does not. The expected decrease in firing after reaching the threshold does not occur and neurons in the PM will continue to fire, albeit at a slightly decreased rate. Catherine’s research aims, therefore, is to examine the difference between this phenomena between the HVAs. Specifically, she’s seeking an answer within the anatomical differences between the neurons that project from V1 to the HVAs.

These connections stretching from the V1 to the HVAs can be analyzed by measuring the width of the axon spread, or the width of the synaptic connections from the V1 to the PM. This could be related to convergence, in which multiple neurons from the V1 synapse onto a single neuron in the PM. In order to examine these anatomical differences between neuronal connections, Catherine is injecting a virus with fluorescent tags into the neurons of mice. During imaging, the fluorescence will illuminate the axons of the neurons of the visual system and allow for her to differentiate the magnitude of the axon spreads of the V1 and the PM to that of the V1 and the LM. If certain differences are found, it would indicate a reason behind the differences in surround suppression—and would consequently allow us to better understand the inner mechanisms of the visual system. 

As the weeks pass, I also better understand what Dr. G means by science, communication, and collaboration. Listening to my fellow Fellows’ chalk talks allowed me to glance into their worlds of neurobiology, embryology, biochemistry, and molecular biology. Gaining that little piece of insight from each speaker truly showed me how expansive, diverse, and unknown the current biological research field is, and it also let me to realize how lucky I am to have this BSURF experience. While we’ve only reached the halfway point this summer, I’m looking forward to see the culmination of our projects in the following weeks!

Scientific Art or Artistic Science?

Dr. Alison Adcock isn’t just a scientist or the principal investigator of the lab I work at—she’s also an artist. Ever since she was a child, she had a desire to understand the brain—how the brain that instinctively draws our hands back from a hot stove is the same brain that is able to think critically and philosophically. She was initially fascinated by the concept of learning, particularly regarding the structure-function relationship of the hippocampus, and she was driven to understand it at a deeper level. Dr. Adcock followed that curiosity, majoring in Psychology at Emory University. One of her formative experiences during her undergraduate years, however, was traveling abroad to Oxford University to study under their Psychology, Philosophy, and Physiology (PPP) program. With this multidimensional education, she was left to consider following either one of two paths—an artist or a scientist. Dr. Adcock soon realized that she would likely be more able to integrate art into science than science into art. “Science is about curiosity,” she says. She describes how some scientists are utilitarian, considering only that which is practical or novel. Yet she didn’t want that to be her science—she wanted to pursue a path where she could integrate art, service, society, and her own personal aims. As such, she went to Yale University to pursue her M.D.-Ph.D., wanting to experience both worlds of a physician and researcher. As she continued with her career and consequently made her way to Duke, she began to question more—why people choose to investigate the world, why we fail to learn at times, and when and if we can be ready to learn at all. These questions form the basis of the Adcock Lab, as the intrinsic and extrinsic mediating variables surrounding learning are the pillars of the projects being done today.

When asked about what she likes about her lab, Dr. Adcock responds that one of her favorite components was actually something she didn’t expect. She found that by helping others refine their own research questions and explore their own aims, she was able to see how their questions and aims overlapped with her own. This almost symbiotic relationship of learning wouldn’t occur if every researcher worked separately and secretly; collaboration, therefore, is one of her personal joys. Before moving on to the next question, however, she adds—“and of course, discovery,” and smiles.

What she enjoys about science is not just limited to her work in the lab. “Similar to faith, [science] is a way to access a truth,” Dr. Adcock says. Scientists do well in refining and getting closer to that truth, every discovery a marker of human progress. Even so, she wishes that the genuine scientific process, beyond simply just the “eureka”s and the Nobel Prizes, would be better acknowledged. “If we value only the objective and the utilitarian, we implicitly devalue the subjective things, like the process,” Dr. Adcock asserts. She continues, stating that if we pretend that the error-filled, emotion-filled uncertainties don’t exist, we fail to represent to others how beautiful science is. It’s important to embrace the unknown as we continue to refine certain truths, to embrace our stumbles on the road to discovery. As a current college student exploring the scientific unknown, this particularly resonated with me.

When I followed by asking Dr. Adcock what she would say to her college self, she sits and thinks for a while before responding: “To not worry so much about being right. We’re always wrong; always just trying to be less wrong. Be aware for when performance is the most important (which is almost never, she adds) and for when it is not grades, but what you learn.” From one artist-scientist to another, sitting down with Dr. Adcock was truly an insightful experience. As I become more integrated into the scientific community, I hope that my own exploration into the unknown follows a path not just in science, but art, ethics, and emotion.

Curious George Is My Role Model

How many moons does Jupiter have? What is a group of frogs called? How many total steps does the Eiffel Tower have? If you know the answers, congrats! If you don’t, take a guess! If you’re curious about the answers, keep reading…because my project is about thatcuriosity!

When it comes to learning, we as humans constantly seek out and consume information, whether we’re aware of it or not. When we look at a traffic light, we’re learning from that stimulus so we can make our next move—stop or go. The Adcock Lab studies learning and the many cognitive elements behind it, such as attention, reward, and you guessed itcuriosity. The information-gap hypothesis posits that curiosity is a sense of “deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge and understanding” (Lowenstein, 1994). Basically, when we don’t know something, our interest is piqued, driving us to learn and consequently resolve that lack of knowledge.

The Adcock Lab has previously conducted research on curiosity, such as identifying neural networks that correspond to anticipation and attention when information is withheld or delayed. My mentor Abby has also recently done a study in which she characterized certain determinants of curiositywhat spurs it, and what maintains or prolongs it. By implementing real-time self-reports of curiosity into her experiment, in which participants produced guesses on the content of art videos, she was able to track how curiosity changes over the duration of information arrival.

My research project is an offshoot of Abby’s, looking at other mediators of curiosity. It has been largely established that there is a link between curiosity and memory, and another link between engagement and memory. Curiosity has been seen to enhance learning and memory both for information of interest (Kang et al. 2009, Wade & Kidd, 2019) and incidental information (Gruber et al. 2014), while choice and active engagement was seen to enhance memory with both intentional (Voss et al. 2011) and incidental encoding (Murty et al. 2015). However, the three-way relationship between curiosity, agency, and memory has not been as clear; my project, therefore, is to establish that link. In the experiment, autonomy and active engagement will be manipulated to see differences in levels of self-reported curiosity during the previously mentioned art video task. Participants will then be called back to perform a memory test in order to examine differences in recall.

My project will also explore how the unique dispositions of people respond differently to these manipulations in engagement. This “trait curiosity” is well-defined in Kashdan et al. 2017, where certain people may view curiosity as positive, constantly asking questions and being fascinated with the workings of the world, while others view it as more negativeasking questions only when the uncertainty of a lack of information is too uncomfortable to ignore. By linking active engagement, curiosity, and memory, and consequently analyzing that link with respect to dispositional differences in curiosity, this research will hopefully have strong implications in education. Curiosity could be better incited through greater student autonomy or engagement in the classroom setting, enhancing learning beyond rote memorization. The self-awareness of one’s own curiosity could also result in a greater motivation to close the information gap, leading to a stronger internal desire to learn instead of for extrinsic incentives like grades. The potential impact of this research is exciting, and as the days pass, I become more and more curious on the conclusions of my project!

Answers: Jupiter has 79 moons, a group of frogs is called an army, and the Eiffel Tower has 1710 steps!

99%Q & 1%A

We’re sitting in a classroom in French. It’s 9 in the morning. With coffee and nervousness in our veins, we’re listening to Dr. Grunwald as he discusses what is to come in the next eight weeks. “Science isn’t just moving colorless liquids from one tube to the next.” Dr. Grunwald continued, “Science is about communication. Collaboration. Integrity.” And with that, he releases us to go to our labs.

I expect a lot.

This summer I’ll be working in Dr. Adcock’s lab in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, with my mentor being grad student Abby Hsiung. Her current project is on curiosity, examining how the human urge to close an information gap can be modulated by factors such as engagement, uncertainty, and complexity. With my raison d’être being effective positive impact, it’s incredibly exciting to see where our research could be applied—education, memory, and so on.

Even before I began, I expected a couple things: to get lost in the literature, to get mixed up while reading code, and to ask a lot of questions. These all came true. After a week of reading more background literature, getting access to the testing room, training on the ethics of human research, and marginally increasing my data science skills, I felt more comfortable—getting used to the rhythm of the lab environment as well as mentally accustoming to the workflow. I was able to come up with a project that incorporated my own specific aims, building off of Abby’s work. She helped me streamline my thoughts and build a more cohesive plan for an experiment, and next week, I’ll present my proposal at our lab meeting. That both thrills me and terrifies me, but that’s research—leaping into the unknown to discover an answer, or more likely, discover more questions to propel even more thinking.

I expect to run into some problems throughout the summer, such as realizing I left out some critical component during my first trial or forgetting to manipulate some important variable during data analysis. But I also expect to learn a lot. To be taken by surprise. To make sense of my data. To fail. To get back up. And in the greater context of things, to find out if research is for me. To find out why science isn’t just benchwork or lines of code. To realize what Dr. Grunwald meant by communication, collaboration, and integrity.

I expect a lot. While it’s unknown whether or not these expectations will be fulfilled this summer, well—that’s research in itself! And like research, I’ll find an answer. But if I’m left with further questions, I expect that I’ll find even more meaning in it.

Proposal planning with my friend, the whiteboard!