Wilma Bainbridge: The Neuroscience of Memorability

Wilma Bainbridge, Class of '05, is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Mental Health, and is soon to join the University of Chicago faculty in January 2020 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology. Dr. Bainbridge received her B.A. in Cognitive Science from Yale University. She pursued undergraduate research in both human-robot interaction and visual neuroscience, then completed a year-long research internship in robotics at the University of Tokyo. She next completed her Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, focusing her work on the cognitive neuroscience of perception and memory. Here, Dr. Bainbridge chats with Xinyi Zhou, Class of '10, about her path from the Magnet to academia and her research on memorability.

How did you get interested in neuroscience?

Going to Blair, I realized I was super into computer science and I enjoyed programming as a side hobby. In my free time with my programming skills, I made this whole fun database of video game glitches. But even though I'm good at computer science, I am really interested in the human mind. Neuroscience is going through a renaissance: previously just having a grounding in psychology and neuroanatomy was enough, but a firm grounding in computer science, in artificial intelligence and machine learning, is becoming more important in order to analyze information in the brain. So interestingly my interest in computer science has helped me in neuroscience.

When did you decide you wanted to go to grad school/become a professor?

I went to Yale for college and I majored in cognitive science. I was interested in computers and my Intro to Computer Science professor, Brian Scassellati, had a robotics lab.

On the first day I asked if I could go to a lab meeting and he was really welcoming, so I got very involved in research. His work is on human-computer interaction (HCI), not just computer science, but how do people interpret robots and how do they interact with robots. I was in that lab for four years and I was able to write a few papers and go to a few conferences. At the same time, I volunteered for a lot of neuroscience studies because it's a great way to earn money as a student. At some point, I had volunteered for so many studies that the lab asked me if I wanted to join. I joined as a junior and I was there for two years. And I realized, woah, I really like neuroscience and it's a way to combine my interest in psych and AI.

One piece of advice I'd give for high school and college students - if they're interested at all in research, I recommend that they talk to their professors early on and see if they can sit in on lab meetings. I think getting early research experience dramatically shaped my path because I enjoyed being in lab so much. And I got many opportunities -- like, I was able to go to Europe for the first time (to present at a conference). I would definitely encourage people to think about research early on.

How would you describe your research?

My research is on the intersection of perception and memory -- looking at how we can understand what perceptual features of an item guide memory and what perceptual features we can pull out of memory. In layman's terms, my work is on this idea of memorability. I basically found that some images are intrinsically really memorable, like, some faces we all remember and some we all forget. And there are certain signals in the brain when we see these memorable items. [My research explores] what makes something really memorable, what are the limits of memorability, and what is the brain [sensing] when it's seeing this?

We're also looking at how we can pull out visual information from memory. We're having people draw their memories; we think drawings are very subjective, but we have thousands of people do this and score them online, so it helps us understand what detail exists in a certain item. And how does it change, if you have a mental condition or are pushed to the limit in the memory tasks we use.

Therefore, a lot of my research deals with big data using image sets that have hundreds and thousands of images, with crowdsourcing tens to thousands of participants, and we're also doing a lot of machine learning using MRI brain scans during some of our experiments.

What do you envision for your new lab?

A lot of what I describe I helped to pioneer so I will definitely continue with those projects, but we're going to expand in all sorts of directions in terms of looking across modalities. Right now we've only looked at visual memorability but in the future we'll look at auditory, even olfactory memorability. Also we're thinking about doing some research using virtual reality to look at what the representations are -- if we have someone recreate their memory in 3D, in what ways is it is accurate and what ways is it inaccurate.

How has academia changed in the time you've been involved?

One thing that has grown in general is academia is becoming a very competitive landscape. It's very hard to find tenure track positions these days -- that's something I'd urge people to think about before a PhD program.

Also, a lot of fields, especially psychology and neuroscience, are thinking about ethics -- big issues with not being able to replicate results, big conversations about how the publication system should change, or how the reviewing of research [should change]. And there's a lot of old unfair structures built into academia, in terms of how much power senior academics have over someone like a graduate student. I think academia is really in a transitional state right now.

What's your advice for someone who is thinking of going the academic track?

Get into research early, even in undergrad if you can. I see a lot of people at least in psychology and neuroscience, that it's hard for them to know if they want to go to med school or do research. And I think that's something you should try to think about early because those are two very different paths. I think academia is super exciting because you get to do research that you love and might be able to make an impact on how people view a field. Try to get a diversity of experiences. Try to go to different institutes for grad school/undergrad. I think if you can, studying abroad is great, you get to learn more about the global community. I lived in Japan for a few years and that helped my research interests and helped me grow as a person learning about other cultures and other people.

Going to Blair is such a unique experience and it truly shaped who I ended up becoming, getting such a strong background in science and computer science. Even though it's very intense then, it's all worth it in the end.

Tell us a little about your Magnet experience -- what classes and clubs do you remember? What teachers were memorable?

I would say that my four years at Blair in the magnet program were actually the four years I worked the hardest in my life. I think all the students know it was an intense time and I learned some science and math that I never even learned in college or graduate school. It helped me learn how to work efficiently, and how to think about research, since they encouraged us all to do research projects between our junior and senior year. I did a summer working in a human computer interaction lab at UMD, working with Douglas Oard. That was a great experience; they treated me like a grad student. I was programming this interface in Java to search and visualize this large database of Holocaust victim testimonies. It's called the Shoah Visual History Archive, and they had this all this data that they didn't know how to present or filter. I made an interface that lets you show where the person was and where they moved, when it was, etc.

I feel like I got so much programming experience at Blair. It made me realize that programming is incredibly important for young people these days and it should be a basic subject that people learn. I did wish at the time for classes in psychology or neuroscience in the Magnet, but I obviously think that computer science is great. I remember making a calculator out of a circuit board from scratch in Ms. Piper's AI (artificial intelligence) class. I think at Blair that was one of the most inspiring classes for me.