Press Release

Johns Hopkins APL and University Students Join Forces to Map the Brain

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) partnered with Johns Hopkins University students this summer on a pilot program called CIRCUIT (Connectomics Institute for Reconstructing Cortex: Understanding Intelligence Together).

The ten-week summer internship program combined a sponsored research opportunity to map the brain to nanoscale resolution, intensive training, and mentor support. CIRCUIT undergraduate students from a variety of academic backgrounds collaborated to help proofread brain maps that were generated through the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) program. MICrONS is an applied research program by IARPA that seeks to reverse engineer the algorithms of the brain to revolutionize machine learning.

“We worked with the Hopkins Office for Undergraduate Research (HOUR) at Johns Hopkins University to select high-achieving students from across the university (including the Biomedical Engineering, Computer Science, and Neuroscience departments) to receive training in neuroscience and computer science. As part of the CIRCUIT program, they progress from structured research to independent discovery, while supporting a sponsored effort. It’s a win-win situation,” said Will Gray Roncal, APL Technical Lead.

“By enrolling in the program, students get training by experts in neuroanatomy and neuroanatomical annotation. APL and our sponsor benefit because the students are producing key data,” said Brock Wester, APL Project Manager. “This is a growing field — they are getting familiarity with state-of-the-art Connectomics research and gaining insight into the brain at the same time.”

Collaboration and teamwork played a key role in the program with students forming small teams that worked as part of a larger one. “The more brains you have around a table, the better answer you are going to get; that was something I learned as part of CIRCUIT,” said JHU student and CIRCUIT participant Hannah Cowley.

Orlando Martinez, a JHU student and CIRCUIT participant added, “Not only did I have the opportunity to mesh two fields I love, biology and neuroscience, I also learned the power of a group and what an impact it can have on science.”

Marysol Encarnación, CIRCUIT program coordinator and graduate student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said, “Our students demonstrated an unwavering commitment to their research. Not only were they successful in learning challenging topics such as machine learning, but they were immediately able to apply their new skills to cutting-edge research projects. They also navigated a highly professional environment, working on-site at a top research laboratory. I was highly impressed with how they performed.”

Staff from the JHU Office of Multicultural Affairs and the Center for Student Success supported their students in pursuing the opportunity to intern at APL. Dean Ferguson, Associate Dean at the Center for Student Success related, “Participation in CIRCUIT was an amazing and confidence-building experience for our students. The students developed competencies in areas they never thought possible.”

The 23 CIRCUIT Institute students worked out of APL’s Intelligent Systems Center for eight weeks beginning in May and ending in July. “Most of these students come from backgrounds underserved or underrepresented in research and benefited from STEM mentor support. This program addresses a critical aspect of the STEM pipeline, following ideas developed in our high school program — the College Prep Program at APL — which is geared toward helping underserved students prepare for college success,” added Gray Roncal.

HOUR director Feilim Mac Gabhann praised the innovative program. “The CIRCUIT program is an example of the best type of experiential learning. The students not only train in new techniques but also apply their knowledge from JHU classes to build new open-source tools and create new knowledge. The students lead their own research projects in a team-based environment with multiple research mentors. I have no doubt that this type of program makes a huge impact on the career trajectories of these students, and in checking in with several of the students from the program, they have returned to campus energized by the experience.”

Learn more about CIRCUIT.

Learn more about the Hopkins Office for Undergraduate Research (HOUR) at Johns Hopkins University.