Rice University ECE graduates have been known to make significant contributions in a variety of fields, redefining the limits of what it means to be an electrical or computer engineer. We invite you to get to know our community and read about fellow Owls who share the Rice experience and can offer a viewpoint into the multitude of career options one can pursue “beyond the hedges,” be it in industry, academia, non profit or startups. This month the spotlight falls on Jeff Gavornik, an MIT postdoctoral researcher who recently accepted a faculty position at Boston University. He will begin his professorship in January.
Assistant Professor, Boston University
Tell us about yourself.
I’m from Texas; I grew up in the San Antonio area before coming to Rice as an undergraduate. After graduation I worked for Boeing (NASA) in Clear Lake. While I was working at NASA, I did the M.E.E. program at Rice. After that, I applied to Ph.D. programs, got in at UT in electrical engineering and worked part time for Boeing while pursuing my Ph.D. I came to MIT to do postdoc work in brain/cognitive sciences. I recently accepted a position as an assistant professor in biology at BU, where I will start in January. I’ve been married to my Rice sweetheart for something like 13 years. We have a daughter who, despite being born a Yankee, knows all the words to Deep in the Heart of Texas!
How did you decide on Rice?
It was a combination of it being a really good school and very affordable at the time I was there. That combination is what decided me. And for the M.E.E. - Boeing was willing to pay for it while I was there so it was free and relatively convenient.
Tell us about your current work.
I’m in my fifth year of postdoctoral work studying the brain at MIT, but what I’m really interested in is synaptic plasticity. The brain is this big network of neurons with trillions of synaptic connections and somehow information flow though these connections is responsible for everything that goes on in our heads. Plasticity allows us to encode various forms of memory as a function of experience – this thing looks familiar, motor memory, etc. – by modulating the connection strength between neurons, but we don’t know many of the details about how this works.
I’m also interested in how time is represented and processed in the brain. One of the more influential theories about how the brain rearranges itself to represent information is called the Hebbian plasticity rule. The basic idea is that you should strengthen the connections between neurons that are often coactive since this coactivity probably means they are both involved in representing the same information. This rule explains how neural networks, artificial or biological, can store spatial patterns (for example, the 2D retinal activation pattern that corresponds to a particular object), but it really doesn’t explain how the brain encodes the temporal relationship between these stored patterns (for example, the sequence of muscle activations required to play an instrument). Considering the importance of time and sequential ordering for behavioral function, it’s really surprising how little we know about the neural basis of temporal processing in the brain. I’m using computational modeling and experimental approaches to study explicitly how experience codes spatiotemporal information.
We heard you worked on the space station. What was that like?
The space station program was very interesting to work on. It was engineering but also politics because all the components of the space station were built in different countries. On the one hand technical requirements and specifications were negotiated by engineers, but at the same time everything was also being negotiated at a quasi-governmental level. It was interesting to see some of the non-engineering considerations and how they affected the final design. Being a young engineer it was also cool to work on the hardware that really went up into space, and to travel internationally. I spent time in Italy and Japan on long-term integration projects which was just fun. I actually worked for Boeing, which was NASA’s prime contractor for the station, in hardware-software integration. Because the station was built and launched one piece at a time, it was not possible to perform any end-to-end testing on the whole system. So all of the international partners would build their parts to negotiated specifications and then would send their software, flight equivalent hardware or actual flight hardware, to Johnson Space Center (JSC) to be tested and verified on a simulated space station. My job was basically to run this big simulator, made of a mixture of computer models and flight-equivalent hardware that could be made to match any particular on-orbit configuration, to verify that new components would work with those already in space.
What interests you most about neuroscience?
When I was accepted to UT for my Ph.D., I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I knew I didn’t want to do the work I did at NASA. It was interesting for a few years but not really what I wanted to continue doing. My idea was just to take classes broadly for the first few semesters and then pick whatever seemed the most intellectually interesting to me. I took courses in electrical and biomedical engineering, and an introductory course in computational neuroscience. It turns out that neuroscience is a highly cross-disciplinary endeavor, with everything from pure biologists to pure physicists studying different aspects of the brain. The neuroscience course was offered in EE because it covered engineering/software approaches used to model neural processes. The thing that really hooked me is that all of the really fundamental questions about how the brain work have yet to be answered. When you realize that everything that makes us who we are is determined by neural activity, and that all of the interesting questions about how neural activity relates back to big questions like consciousness are still complete mysteries, it is hard not to be interested in neuroscience. In grad school I really moved from being a product engineer to a scientist in the questions I was asking.
What has been most rewarding about your career?
Most rewarding has been the freedom of being in an academic environment, pursuing answers to the questions that I find interesting. I picked what I wanted to do based on what was the most intriguing to me. Happily, that has worked out, and my job is actually to do exactly the most appealing thing that I could find to do. It’s exciting to get up every day. The questions I find to be the most interesting are what I spend my time working on, and now I have the resources to invest other people’s efforts to find help me find the answers.
What is an example of a tough decision you’ve had to make?
How long to stay on the academic path before quitting to find a job in “industry”. When you are on the academic path, most of your time is spent learning how to perform research in an academic setting and it’s a little hard to know what you would do if you left-- especially if you’ve never left before. Not quite so much in engineering, but especially in the sciences, the program is not designed to provide you with a lot of clearly defined non-academic options. Even though I started my career outside of academia, it was sort of this way for me, too. I always knew I could leave and go back to industry and this was appealing in a lot of ways, particularly because the ratio of number Ph.D.s and post-docs to professor positions is intimidating. At every point there was a gut check of, do I really want to keep pursuing this, and forgoing the good salary that comes with an advanced degree in electrical engineering for an NIH stipend, as opposed to taking a job outside of academia? So that was the hard decision that I had to make continually for the last five years.
Even if I hadn’t ended up getting a professorship, I had some other offers outside of academia that would have been interesting and relevant to what I study. For example I had a job offer to work in a DARPA neural technology office, that would have been very interesting. And I wouldn’t have gotten that offer right after getting my Ph.D. without my postdoc work. I wouldn’t have been competitive for it, so staying on the academic path as long as I did would have worked out for me either way.
What memories from Rice really stand out?
I have nothing but fond memories of Rice. I attended Rice because it was a good school and affordable, but I didn’t know too much about it until I showed up. The mix of people that were there, the opportunities, the residential colleges with people from different years mixed in together - I really enjoyed it. It was ALL good. The opportunity to work with and take classes from professors who had won Nobel prizes – it’s just a great place to be a student. It was a different experience as an M.E.E. student, working full-time and coming to campus in the afternoon to take classes. I wasn’t doing much socializing on campus because of work. It was still very intellectually satisfying, but a different experience. I loved it as an undergraduate and thought it was great. When you apply to be a professor, you have to write research and teaching goals, and as I was doing that I looked back and realized that my experience at Rice really informs the way I want to teach. The honor code is an example of a way that Rice treats students with a degree of trust that I think is very valuable in instilling good values in its graduates.
What advice would you give to Rice students based on your experiences?
I would strongly advise people to develop relationships, for references and networking. Not necessarily that they find a “mentor”, but that they make sure there are people who know who they are and are willing to vouch for their abilities.
If you are considering a career in academia, really think it through – I didn’t do this but I should have. It can be a bit of a slog to get into academia. As Prof. Clark told me when I was still at Rice, you have to make sacrifices in the short-term to meet the long-term goal. And realize that it’s sort of an arbitrary path. I’ve worked with some of the smartest people in the world. I have seen a lot of people who are smart and hardworking and didn’t get a job in academia, and others who are that did. There is no clear cause as to who or why. You obviously need a certain level of intelligence and hard work to get past the threshold to be considered. Once you get past that, it’s fairly arbitrary. What I mean is that even if you’re the best in the world at what you do, someone needs to want to hire someone that does what you do in the time window that you are looking for a position. There is no guarantee of success – all you can do is try your best. Be realistic about the probability of getting a job in academia. Think about what percentage of people go down this path and don’t end up getting the position that they want, and decide if you’re willing to invest a large amount of time for this small chance of success. It is very worth it to ask these questions at the outset, as opposed to waiting until you’ve graduated with a Ph.D. and spent years in a post-doc position before wondering the same thing.
I would also recommend people take advantage of the opportunities available while they are a student. For example, at MIT they have a boathouse on the Charles and you can walk down anytime and learn how to sail. It’s a neat opportunity to do something different. After you leave the campus, it’s much harder to do, especially once you have a job or a family. There are all sorts of opportunities that I kind-of regret not acting when I had the time to do so. So take advantage of all the experiences that exist while you are a student, because a lot of doors close when you walk through the Sallyport.
We welcome suggestions of alumni to profile. Please email name, class year and a brief introduction to the individual to Jennifer Hunter or call her at (713) 348-4212.