Dr. Tim Buschman is Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. He received his B.S. in Biology from the California Institute of Technology, and Tim was then awarded a Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) to conduct research at the National Institute of Mental Health’s Laboratory of Neurophysiology. Next, he completed his PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tim remained there to conduct postdoctoral research before joining the faculty at Princeton University. He was awarded the NIH Director’s “New Innovator” Award in 2014, and he holds multiple patents related to his research. In our interview, Tim shares more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:38)
When he’s not in the lab, Tim enjoys spending time outdoors with his family. In particular, they have been doing a lot of hiking, and Tim finds it a great activity for stimulating thoughts and drawing out his creativity.
The Scientific Side (4:05)
Tim studies cognitive control, a process in the brain that allows you to control your own thoughts and actions toward achieving your goals. There are a lot of factors that can influence cognitive control that must be integrated to direct your behavior. He uses animal models to better understand aspects of cognitive control, and his work has relevant applications for improving machine learning and artificial intelligence as well as developing new treatments for neurological diseases that impact cognitive control.
A Dose of Motivation (6:28)
Something that Tim finds really inspiring is that in science, you could have an idea that nobody has ever had before. It is exciting to know that you can make a unique contribution that adds knowledge and value to the world. Tim was also passionate about baseball as a kid, and he was inspired by Cal Ripken Jr. Cal showed that perseverance, drive, and hard work were critical for achieving great things.
What Got You Hooked on Science? (12:06)
For as long as Tim can remember, he wanted to either be a professional baseball player or a scientist. Baseball didn’t work out for him, so he decided to pursue science. His mother is a chemical engineer and his dad is a physicist, so science was in his life from an early age. In high school, Tim had an opportunity to get involved with research studying red blood cell aging in an army research lab. He worked in the lab for three years, and this is where he first learned how to do science. In college, Tim first planned to study the genetics of cancer biology in a worm model. However, he really struggled with this research because it was difficult for him to handle and manipulate the worms because they were so tiny. After enrolling in a class on machine learning, he knew he found his niche. Tim wanted to combine biology and computer science, and he began working on neuroscience research in the lab of Christof Koch. Tim became fascinated with the brain, and he has continued doing neuroscience research ever since.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (25:34)
Despite starting his research career early in high school, Tim didn’t write his first academic research paper until graduate school. When the time came, he was so excited because he was finally going to publish his first paper, and he thought the results from his study were interesting. Thinking about his inspiration for the study, there were a handful of more senior researchers in the field who Tim was sure would be impressed by the paper. The paper was rejected at the first journal they submitted to, but then it was published in the second journal. It seemed like the paper was generally well-received, but later he saw a letter to the editor came out written by one of the people he thought was going to really like the paper. They provided harsh criticism of Tim and his work, and he felt really deflated. At the same time, Tim and his wife were ready to welcome their first son. He’ll never forget sitting in the hospital trying to respond to this letter in the breaks shortly after his son was delivered.
A Shining Success! (29:04)
Over the years, Tim has had a few thrilling “ah-ha” moments where the pieces fell into place, and they figured out home something works. In one of these cases, they had just collected data from mice listening to sequences of sounds in an effort to understand how the brain builds associations in sequences. To do this, the brain has to know what it is experiencing now (sensory input) and know what it has experienced in the past (information from memory) to establish the association. They wanted to know the mechanism by which this happens in the brain, and how current sensory input transitions into becoming a past memory. Looking at the data from this study, two types of neurons came to the forefront that explained how the brain is able to accomplish these tasks, and it was thrilling to put these pieces together to get a better understanding of how the brain works.
Book Recommendations (33:04)
Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson, What If books by Randall Munroe
Most Treasured Travel (34:41)
While Tim appreciates the wonderful opportunities he has had to travel for science, he is generally more of a homebody who prefers to be working in his own lab and staying at home. That said, some of the places he has enjoyed visiting most are places where there is a deep history of science. So much of science involves building on the discoveries of other researchers who came before you, so being able to walk around places like the University of Oxford is remarkable. There is so much history, and it is amazing to think about all of the renowned scientists who have been there, and how he is also contributing a piece of scientific history through his work.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (36:09)
Some of Tim’s fondest memories from graduate school are from playing softball with fellow scientists. Since there were a lot of novices, they had to start with the basics, and everyone was kind of bad at it. This lack of competition was refreshing because even in supportive lab environments, there is always some undercurrent of competition in science. In softball, the stakes were low, the bar was low, and everyone performed badly together. Their games also brought together a mix of graduate students, postdocs, and faculty, and there was no sense of hierarchy. Tim will never forget the day he accidentally knocked over Nobel Laureate Dr. Susumu Tonegawa while rounding first base after a base hit.
Advice For Us All (40:34)
Think about what your long-term goals are and what you want to achieve. Sometimes you may have to accept some things that aren’t fair so you can move on and focus on what’s most important. Be perseverant and have faith that you have a unique voice and your way of contributing to the world. Luck plays a role, but if you continue to work hard and do good work, you’ll be recognized for it, and good things will happen.
Tim’s research aims to understand how the brain controls our thoughts and actions. At each moment in time, we are faced with a nearly infinite number of sensory inputs to process, thoughts to think, and actions to take. Cognitive control allows one to focus on those stimuli, thoughts, and actions that are important for achieving one’s goals. Tim uses a combination of experimental and theoretical approaches to understand the mechanisms by which the brain control cognition. Armed with this understanding, Tim hopes to better understand, and treat, the many neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases that impair cognitive control. Outside of work, Tim enjoys cooking and exploring the outside world with his family.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by Innovative Research, Inc.