Last spring Neural Science major and Electrical and Systems Engineering minor Valeria Zhou, Class of 2024, became one of the first-ever NYU Shanghai students selected as an Amgen Scholar. The program gives undergraduate students the opportunity to learn from and conduct research with some of the world’s top scientists. Under the guidance of their mentor, each Amgen Scholar contributes to at least one research project related to their interests. As part of the program, Valeria will spend eight weeks at Tsinghua University conducting research, gaining invaluable lab experience, participating in group discussions, networking at events, and learning how to present her research. The program is one more step on the path toward a future she’s shaped since arriving at NYU Shanghai.
Eager to Make an Impact
From a young age, Valeria longed to change the world. “I wanted to be a teacher or a researcher. I thought they were respectable jobs that allow people to contribute to society and impact human life,” says Valeria. She first discovered her interest in biology and neuroscience as a high school student. Once she took the Behavioral and Integrative Neuroscience course and the Interaction Lab at NYU Shanghai, she decided to explore her interest and determine how she could best impact society.
“Behavioral and Integrative Neuroscience was a very interactive class focusing on the computational process of neuroscience: how the memory functions and also how our mind presents information,” she explains. “And I became interested in those processes and also the algorithms behind them. Then through the Interaction Lab, I got interested in electrical engineering and turning a creative idea into a real model.”
Because NYU Shanghai students don’t select majors until the end of their sophomore year, Valeria had time to explore all of these interests and come to an important conclusion. “I realized my ultimate goal is to become a neural engineer, like designing bionic limbs that patients can control with their minds. After graduation, I plan to pursue a master’s in Biomedical Engineering to further combine my interests in neuroscience and electrical engineering.”
Exploring Research Opportunities
Research experience is an important step for Valeria on the way to engineering bionic limbs. While her Amgen Scholars Program research project was postponed because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, summer 2023 will still hold opportunities. She is eager to explore neuroengineering topics like biomolecular interactions with nanoelectronic devices or potential therapeutic approaches for neurodegenerative diseases. In the meantime, the NYU Shanghai junior found another opportunity at the Zhejiang University Medical Center.
Valeria’s research there aimed to help people with paralysis communicate. “I worked with Dr. Hao Yaoyao to collect data from people with paraplegia. We asked them to write a Chinese character in their minds,” she explains. “I used MATLAB to do some spike sorting, and I trained the computer to learn the patterns of neural activities and predict which letter a patient was writing. I also tried to reconstruct the Chinese character based on the neural activity data we collected.”
Valeria learned a lot about research, experiment design, and data collection and analysis. “And electrophysiology is the most basic subject in brain–computer interfacing. So no matter which direction I choose in the future, this experience laid a solid foundation for me.”
When Valeria applied to the Amgen Scholars Program, she was nervous because she didn’t have any substantial, long-term research experience. “But I explained how I wished to use my knowledge in neural engineering to help society and impact patients in need. The Amgen Scholars Program is a great opportunity for biotechnology research. The application itself helped me reflect on my achievements so far.” And after spending her summer in the lab, she is even more aware of the value of research experience. So her advice to students at NYU Shanghai or anywhere else who might be nervous about taking an academic leap? “Go for it.”