Bingni Wen Brunton: Analyzing Neuroscience Data

Bingni Wen Brunton '02 is an Assistant Professor in Biology at the University of Washington, recently winning the prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship. Like many Magnet students, she spent summers at NIH doing research and competing in the Intel Science Talent Search, placing as a semifinalist in 2002. Dr. Brunton continued on in STEM, earning a B.S. in biology from Caltech and a PhD in Neuroscience from Princeton before becoming an Assistant Professor in Biology at the University of Washington in 2014. She now leads a group working at the intersection of big data, dynamical systems, and neuroscience. Xinyi Zhou '10 chats with Dr. Brunton about her memories in the Magnet, her journey from summers in high school at NIH to becoming a professor, and some advice for students with diverse interests.

What do you remember from the Magnet? I think I've only appreciated the magnet more since I left ... I think I've been privileged to have gone there. There were a couple things that really stood out as being pretty special for me long term. One of them was doing our own group research projects, especially with the presentation aspect, even during high school. Public speaking and speaking about my research is such a large part of what I do right now. I remember being ridiculously nervous and bad at it, and I'm really glad I got that out of the way in high school. I see my students struggle with that right now and there's really no way to fix it except by doing it a lot. I feel like a lot of people don't give that many talks out of undergrad and I think it's really special that we did that in high school. The magnet gave me a really good primer in technical communication.I think I did everything. Even now, when I tell people that I hung out doing research at the NIH in high school, people are surprised. But it was just a convergence of various very fortunate circumstances, including being in the Magnet, being near the national labs ... that experience was very valuable not because I do anything related to that type of research, but that I got to do research related to what I thought I wanted to do. I found that I wanted to do something really quantitative instead, but I got that out the way and I knew that when I went into undergrad. I teach at a large public university and I see students working so hard to distinguish themselves to have opportunities, and we did it when we were in high school. It's definitely an amplifying effect -- it's really difficult for me now to see a student who has never done research and to predict whether a student will be good at it. Privilege amplifies itself. I've definitely seen that in my own experience as well as those of my friends.

Definitely agreed -- I'm at UC Berkeley and we get tons of undergrads asking to do research, handing me resumes with publications on them and saying they'll come in 24/7.

It's crazy competitive. You get to undergrad, you're in a sea of people, and it's really difficult to distinguish yourself. I think the Magnet went a long way to help the group of us do that. The other thing that really helped me out is that a lot of my work is doing math and I code a lot. And frankly I've never taken a single computer class after Blair. I've sort of been coasting ever since. [laughs]

Coming out of those experiences, I felt "I've already done this something really hard, how hard can this really be? I'm sure I can learn this too." And I feel like a lot of the students that I talk to think, “I need to learn this new thing, I need to take a class.” When you're in grad school, that's not the right thing to do. The right thing is to learn it yourself, and I felt like I learned a lot of that even in high school.

So what was the Magnet like when you were there?

I came in the first year the new building was opened ... I remember the building was brand new, everything was brand new, it was a nice new building in a nice location. The teachers that I still kind of keep in touch with are Ms. Bosse and Ms. Dyas. She was awesome.

I have a lot of friends who, we converged from various Magnet high schools around the country. And I think the [Blair] Magnet was definitely very comparable with all of those institutions. But Blair was also special in that it was a Magnet program inside a regular high school, and even though there was a lot of cultural tension at times, I think there was some value in us being in an urban high school. A lot of the boarding schools, they bus students in and they stay in dorms, and they didn't have the very diverse high school experience that we had.

I remember probably my senior year, I had a free period and was an assistant in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class. It was really astonishing the differences between what we had and what they had, just down the hall, both in terms of resources and preparations and all the kinds of stuff that students were dealing with back at home. A lot of them were very recent immigrants and for them studying and doing homework was the last thing on their minds for good reason. And a lot of private schools I know have these buddy systems to get students more exposed to other students, but for Blair it was the same school, even though it didn't feel like that sometimes.

How did you get started in research?

We had research projects in our R&E class ever since freshman year obviously, and then I did some research in NIH over the summers, one for SRP, and I went back between high school and undergrad kind of just to have something to do. I was probably burnt out at the time, and that summer was probably not terribly productive, but it also clarified what I was looking for in a research opportunity. So at Caltech I went into this new lab which was a cryo tomography lab. For the first couple of years I was just doing a lot of coding for them, and then some pretty cool image processing.

We were probably one of the few labs that have this piece of equipment to be able to do electron microscopy reconstructions [i.e. extremely high resolution 3D images] of biological tissues, and we were doing entire bacteria. People do it mostly for proteins, but to do it on an entire cell is significantly more challenging. The last project I worked on there was pretty cool -- I was one of the first to try to do a reconstruction of an entire eukaryotic cell. We used this marine algae that's only found in one lacuna in the Mediterranean ocean, smaller than E. Coli. Squished it and tried to image it. I didn't do a terribly good job over the summer and other people finished it after me, but it was one of the things I worked on.

From there I felt pretty strongly that biophysics was what I wanted to do going forward. So I went to grad school being pretty sure I wanted to do biophysics, but then I met my advisor and he gave his talk, and he was really enthusiastic, and he had this really beautiful view of studying the brain as a dynamical system. And basically I decided that was what I wanted to do. At the time I didn't have experience in neuroscience, but I really liked the way he thought about it and the combination of using experiments and computation.

From there on I've mostly been doing neuroscience and ended up doing some very computational stuff. I did a postdoc that was mostly in applied math. There's this thing that people do, they start in physics or math and start doing more computational stuff, and I've done that in the opposite direction. I started out in developmental biology and it's gotten more and more quantitative, and now I'm looking at the intersection of big data and dynamical systems and questions about the brain. A lot of what I do is pure engineering, because I could do it, so that's where I am now. After that [looking for research] was a matter of finding a good fit. Something I learned and still try to do now is that it's almost more interesting to find people that I enjoy working with, rather than the thing I want to work on. I really enjoy the community here and the collaborators and I find it more fun to work with them rather than to find the perfect project and find the collaborator, who you may not get along with.So you're pretty early on in your career -- how did that transition into what you do now? As it happened, when I first arrived for my postdoc, I was seven months pregnant with my second kid. So my advisor looked at me and I looked at him and we said, we better stick to theory for now. That worked out really well; I discovered that I really liked theory and there was plenty to do that others hadn't. I had done a bunch of computational stuff, but I'd always been involved in the data collection process. But there's a ton of data and many people don't have the time or expertise to look at it in a proper way. It seemed like I could have my group doing just that without needing the time or resources to collect all that data, and that's what they hired me for -- to have a theory lab. I work on a huge variety of doing things, because I can, because I don't need to collect data. I have to say the thing that mostly ties it together is that I work on anything having to do with big data and neuroscience. Basically any time someone collects a large amount of data that has to do with the brain, I get excited!

What’s your advice for students who have a lot of diverse interests and are trying to figure out what to do?

So I'm not sure this is advice, but it's certainly something I have done. I switched fields pretty often and I may continue doing so in the next few years or decades. The easy thing would have been to stick to the same kind of subfield of science because I already knew it and it was easy, but every time I've done the scarier thing of actually switching fields, it's turned out to be a good decision. So I think if anyone is thinking of switching but is scared of the opportunity cost, I'd say go for it. Especially when I was choosing my thesis lab, I was choosing between doing something that was quite safe -- I had a great idea going in, I had a very supportive advisor, I probably could've published papers quickly and graduated early -- and instead I went into something with a very steep learning curve in which I kind of was a year behind going in, and it turned out really well. And with jumping into math, even though I have no degrees or formal training -- just went and did it, because why not -- I made a lot of mistakes, but it was fun. Being kind of good at a bunch of things actually gets you a pretty long way!