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photo of Andrew Russel

June 8, 2022

Q: When you were a child, what was your answer to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A: My interests have always changed over time. In elementary school, I had a deep passion for teaching. I had a mini-classroom set up in my house, where I pretended to play teacher with my imaginary students. There was also a time when I wanted to be a fashion designer, but that desire faded and my growing fondness for physics and math steered me towards engineering.

Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.

A: In my last year of college, I was studying telecommunications engineering. So common practice was to work on software defined radios, antenna design and wireless communication systems – which never fascinated me. Looking for a different and unique project, I found one related to medical image processing. I started working with brain MRIs whose enigmatic architecture intrigued me. I have always wondered how the brain assembles its many structures to perform a myriad of tasks in a way that is transparent to the outside world. And I realized that we needed to develop computational tools that advance neuroscience to uncover the complex organization and functioning of the brain.

Sahar Ahmad and his family

Sahar (right) with her parents at her sister’s graduation from Duke University.

Q: Tell us about a time when you ran into a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?

A: My doctoral research focused on brain MRI recording, an image processing method that aligns multiple images. My advisor suggested that I model nonlinear deformations of the brain as waves, a problem I tried to solve by developing different models. But none of them worked. Later, I discovered an article that seemed to me related to the problem and I began to study the wave pattern in depth, incorporating it into my research. After putting a lot of effort into formulating the method – 18 months to be exact – it finally worked. Overall, this journey from failure to success developed perseverance in me.

Q: Describe your research in 5 words.

A: Brain journey: from the cradle to the grave.

Q: What are your passions outside of research?

A: I am obsessed with cleaning and organizing my home. I like to clean up the mess and put everything in place. Being organized gives me peace of mind and increases my productivity. This also extends to my research: it helps me meet deadlines and complete daily tasks. Besides organization, I also enjoy cooking, watching thrillers and comedies, and playing puzzle video games.

Hazel J. Edmonds

The author Hazel J. Edmonds