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Dan Spencer: Graduate Student

Dan Spencer

What is your area of focus here in the Baskin School of Engineering?

I study functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. They’re basically brain scans that are done while people are doing something. They could be just sitting or carrying out a task while they’re in the MRI machine. From that, we’re trying to figure out what parts of the brains are being used for different things. Activity is measured more or less from the flow of blood to certain areas during tasks, as that indicates greater need for blood due to greater use. I’m currently investigating risk-taking and am devising a method for analyzing that effectively. Right now, the general procedure is to carry out many basic regressions, which is fast and produces an okay answer, but I’m trying to do better than just okay.

What parts of the brain are you studying?

I study several regions alone but also connectivity. Connectivity is when different regions of the brain such as the frontal lobe and occipital lobe may react to and in tandem with one another. For things like risk-taking, this is a higher-order task and will therefore likely take place in the forward regions of the brain, such as the frontal lobe. Basal tasks, in comparison, are more likely to take place in the occipital lobe. So, when one or the other occurs, you assume there will be some level of exchange between these regions to complete such tasks. You may also eventually see that these patterns are actually unique to specific activities, such as risk-taking. This is helpful in developing some quantitative measure to help diagnose disorders such as ADHD, which are often currently diagnosed through heuristic methods like tests.

Had you studied neuroscience before this project?

No. I’ve had to get myself up to speed. Probably most of my fall quarter was spent reading and re-reading what should be done in neurological studies. I’m also a part of a research group that’s involved with UC Irvine and the University of Minnesota, so it’s a very big network that meets once a week and has also really helped me to understand neuroscience and tie up some loose ends from my studies.

What do you want to pursue going forward?

I want to keep my options open. I interned at Chase Bank in Ohio last summer and I’m going to again this summer, and even though it’s not in my direct area of application, I learned a lot about modelling and statistical programming because of it. Another thing I’m interested in is an institute in San Francisco called Neuroscape that develops video games as a form of therapy for people with neurological disorders. That’s really exciting to me because it’s an opportunity to help people while applying what I’ve learned. But it’s always hard to tell where there will be funding and where it will be possible to secure a job.

How do you usually de-stress?

I like running, which is really great to do here because it’s usually not raining and there’s lots of nature trails around campus. Since I’m in Family Student Housing I’m right next to Wilder Ranch too, which is beautiful. It’s nice to be able to just go out a few times a week for an hour or two and enjoy the nature around here.

Degree Program: 
Ph.D., Statistics
Place of Birth: 
Undergraduate Institution: 
Penn State
Graduate Institution: 
UC Santa Cruz
Rajarshi Guhaniyogi, Raquel Prado