Starting out: Shredded cuticles, and the best time I spelled the word “watermelon”

My high school required students to complete an internship during senior year. Why waste time and money figuring out what you don’t like in college when you can get an idea of a field in high school? That was the administration’s philosophy, anyways.

Frankly, there’s no other way I would have found myself, at age 17,  in the lobby of the Wadsworth Center, waiting for an interview with an neuroscience researcher, wearing the only pair of non-denim pants I owed, and gnawing my nails to stubs. It’s not that I didn’t want to be there.There’s just no way I would have put myself there voluntarily; it was intimidating as hell. But by the end of our hour-long interview, this researcher decided it was worth it to take a bit of a leap of faith and let me work with him. The New York State Department of Health was lesKate_post1s convinced. It took a lot of paperwork just to let me use a computer and the Internet.

The researcher studied electrocorticography (fun fact: this technique was pioneered at the Montreal Neurological Institute), specifically brain-computer interfaces. My primary task was to assemble informal literature reviews, on all kinds of topics. Some of the devices being developed at that lab focused on how to convert brain activity/neurally-based intent into speech – I tested one EEG-based prototype myself and spelled the word “watermelon” without making a noise or moving a muscle.  (That currently ranks at #4 on the most-updated list of coolest things I’ve done.) I learned so much about the kind of processes that made those kinds of experiments possible during my internship. The internship did its job: I chose my major because I loved reading the articles that married language and neuroscience. I’ve expanded on my knowledge during my time at McGill. I now do research on a completely different part of the brain –  the cerebellum – while taking advanced linguistics courses.

Some things don’t change – the first time I walked into the Bellini Building to interview for my current lab job, I still felt completely overwhelmed.  I’m also pretty sure my cuticles were still shredded by the time I got to the principal investigator’s office. But this time, I was walking in without needing a push from anyone.

Kate is a U2 Cognitive Science student, and an MSURJ Senior Editor 


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