Postdoc Profile: Nuttida Rungratsameetaweemana

Nuttida Rungratsameetaweemana, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scientist in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, spoke with us about her early interest in neuroscience, her decision to come to Columbia, and her recent move from San Diego to New York.

Can you speak about your background, especially as it influenced your ultimate path?

I grew up in Thailand, and came to the US for college at 19. Before coming here, I only knew how to read in English, but I wasn't able to communicate effectively. Once I arrived, I attended a summer program that helped me learn conversational English and improve my writing skills.

I was really interested in neuroscience, so I decided to go to Middlebury College in Vermont to work on my English language abilities. Luckily, I received a lot of support there, both in improving my language skills and in finding research opportunities. Eventually, I went to UCSD and earned my PhD in neuroscience.

Head shot of Nuttida Rungratsameetaweemana with text with her name on a background with a honeycomb design

How did your interest in neuroscience come about?

When I was fourteen, my dad had an unfortunate accident that left him hospitalized for months. During that time, I spent a lot of time at the hospital and became exposed to neuroscience. Hearing the doctors and nurses discuss the brain and nervous system, I became more interested in learning about these topics. I started searching for books about neuroscience—but could only find one textbook written in English. I wanted to find out more, so I applied to a science-focused high school in Thailand that was different from the traditional schools there. This government-sponsored program offered lab classes where we could conduct our own scientific experiments, and I found that I really enjoyed doing research. By the end of high school, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in neuroscience.

As you started to narrow your focus within neuroscience, where did you land? What was your ultimate PhD project?

As an undergrad, I double-majored in math and neuroscience. For my PhD, I focused on using experimental and computational tools to study questions in the field of cognitive neuroscience, essentially studying the computational principles that the brain may use to accomplish everyday tasks like learning and decision making.

My experiments involved both healthy human participants and memory-impaired patients. I was interested in investigating the process of adaptive and flexible decision making. We make countless decisions every day under constantly changing sensory environments. What kind of neural mechanisms make it possible for humans and animals to deal with these changes and generate the optimal behavior that ultimately maximizes the chance of survival?

I designed experiments to answer this question—by testing how different changes in the sensory environments affect the decision process over time. I recorded the neural activity of healthy participants while performing these tasks. With patients who had suffered bilateral lesions to the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory (medial temporal lobe), I wanted to know what computations were supported by those regions, and whether the brain could compensate for the loss to still perform the decision tasks.

"What kind of neural mechanisms make it possible for humans and animals to deal with these changes and generate the optimal behavior that ultimately maximizes the chance of survival?"

Were you able to isolate and identify the workarounds?

What we found was that these patients were able to perform a lot of tasks really well, despite not being able to form explicit memories about the sensory stimuli used on the tasks. My recent work uses deep learning and other computational tools to try to tease apart and identify the compensatory mechanisms that may give rise to this phenomenon.

Is the goal of your work helping people who have had lesions or amnesia to make those flexible decisions?

My research aims to improve our understanding of the neural mechanisms that support flexible decision making both in health and disease. I hope that, ultimately, these insights can contribute to future development of treatments for patients. One of the research goals during my PhD was to overcome the experimental limitations in clinical populations, particularly those involving memory-impaired patients. For example, in a classic cognitive paradigm, patients are presented with a first image and then, after a short interval, a second image. Patients have to report if the images are the same or different. This elicits a yes or no response and if the patients answer incorrectly, we don't really have a clear understanding of why. To work around these limitations, I designed a series of tasks that can extract more information about the cognitive processes.

When working with memory-impaired patients, there are many factors we need to consider. For example, we generally do not use neuroimaging techniques with our patients. There are imaging tools that we would usually use with healthy subjects, but with certain clinical populations, it's a little bit trickier to do that because they could cause some discomfort. As a result, we typically conduct psycho-physical experiments: we essentially designed some tasks, and participants perform them while sitting in a room and interacting with a computer. Because recording their neural activity can cause discomfort, we only recorded their behavioral responses in these experiments.

The tasks that I designed were geared towards more naturalistic decision-making scenarios. Instead of just choosing between two options, participants would use a flight simulator joystick to report the direction of movement on the screen, for example. The joystick allowed them to change their mind on the fly and any hesitation can be observed.

I started to incorporate this approach in studies involving patients because it can help them feel less self-conscious about their responses. With this experimental setup, patients can be partially correct and can also change their minds. This can make patients feel more comfortable and less anxious about the possibility of being wrong. And it's just more naturalistic. Through this method, we can extract more information about the decision process, including their confidence level and change of mind without the need for neuroimaging procedures. By incorporating these types of tools, we hope to better understand which neural mechanisms are impaired and which are still intact in the patients. With more refined ways of extracting the underlying neural mechanisms through behavioral responses, we found that learning to adapt to changes in sensory regularities can circumvent memory systems.

"Instead of just choosing between two options, participants would use a flight simulator joystick to report the direction of movement on the screen, for example. The joystick allowed them to change their mind on the fly and any hesitation can be observed."

If you're able to have a method that is more nuanced and less invasive, and give more agency to the participant, this must have implications for all kinds of human subjects research.

Yes, through my collaborations, we have also been working with epilepsy patients who are hospitalized and have generously participated in our experiments. One of my goals as a researcher is to optimize the data that we can collect in a limited timeframe, especially from clinical populations.

I have been exploring methods and techniques that can extract as much information as possible from the data we are able to collect. This will make it possible for us to generate improved understanding from smaller data sets or a smaller number of patients. So that would be the overarching goal as well, apart from answering neuroscience research questions.

What influenced your decision to leave San Diego to come to Columbia, and what opportunities do you think you might find being here in New York?

One thing that's very similar between New York and San Diego is the amazing scientific community. For neuroscience, New York City and San Diego are the two best places to be. There are a lot of active collaborations between the medical schools, hospitals, and academic institutions in both locations. One unique aspect of New York is that there are many hospitals, and with a more diverse patient population compared to other locations. This is really important, especially if we're thinking about applying any of our scientific findings for translational purposes. For our research to have broader implications, we need to make sure it is applicable to a wide range of individuals. Being able to work with data collected from a diverse patient population would be a very important step in the right direction. That is another reason why I find working at Columbia to be exciting. Additionally, The Department of Biomedical Engineering has established a strong relationship with the neurology and neurosurgery departments at the medical school.

Apart from research, I'm looking forward to exploring different neighborhoods and food scenes in New York City.

You talked a little bit about food, but how are you spending your limited free time?

I love cooking—in my family, food is our love language. My mom and my dad cooked a lot when I was young. My siblings and I knew if our parents were happy with us when they put together a special homemade dinner that took several hours to prepare. I find cooking to be therapeutic. When I meet a new friend, somebody from a different culture, I love to learn about their culture through learning to make their favorite dishes. I also enjoy comfort food which reminds me of the dishes that my mom used to make when I was young. In my free time, I also like to draw cartoons, which is something I used to do a lot with my mom.

Do you have any book or podcast recommendations?

I have a sister who is ten years younger than me, and she's in medical school in Thailand. Because she is very busy, I try to find ways to connect with her by asking for recommendations on movies, TV shows, and books to read. She mostly only reads medical textbooks now, but ‘Being Mortal’ by Atul Gawande was a book we both enjoyed. Aside from this book, most of her recommendations are in Thai. I think this is her way of making sure I won’t lose touch with the language.

Is there anything that I didn't ask you that you wish I had, or anything else you want to bring up that we didn't speak about?

I am grateful for the support that I have received from both my home Department and the Provost office. The Biomedical Engineering Department's faculty and staff have been incredibly patient and kind while I learned to manage my independent research group. I appreciate how much guidance and support everyone in the department has provided me, making sure that I know where to go for help when I need it. As an early-career researcher from an underrepresented group and as a woman, having this kind of support system is extremely helpful, especially when I'm far away from home. I am grateful to be at Columbia and to know that I have a strong support system.