Spotlight on Science: Alex Mitchell '17
The senior studies networks of neurons in the hope of one day creating a new type of robot.
Mitchell is yet another Brandeis undergraduate working closely with a professor and doing high-level work in a lab.
Here's our Q & A with him:
Lab: Professor of Physics Seth Fraden
What are you researching?
Our lab prepares chemical networks using the Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction (BZ). The reaction contains a catalyst whose oxidative state oscillates, changing the color of the mixture. Different spatial arrangements of reactors allow them to exchange chemicals through diffusion, which can create either excitatory or inhibitory coupling, leading to propagation of oscillations. For my project, I find well-characterized neural circuits and use their design principles to construct new network designs for BZ. As an example, we have recently created a pattern that is analogous to the descending spinal cord network in the lamprey.
Now can you explain that in plain English?
We take these very small gel wells, about the size of the period at the end of this sentence, and fill them with a special chemical mixture that changes color. By connecting different wells, we allow different chemicals to flow between them. This means that if one well "spikes," that is enters a rapid color transition, some of its chemicals flow into another well, causing that one to also spike. This behavior is somewhat similar to how neurons function. My current project is to look at how neurons are connected in biology and use those design principles to set up new configurations of wells to produce easily characterized behaviors. We hope to use these ideas one day to design soft robots.
What's the most critical thing you've learned about doing scientific research?
Read your literature! The old adage "a day in the library can save you a month in the lab" still rings true today. Reading papers will get you up to speed with what is going on in your field, help you avoid simple mistakes, and will make you sound much more informed in front of your mentor and/or PI.
Future career plans: Neuroscience research.