Science at Cambridge: Computer Science

7D Catalina Cangea
Catalina Cangea

UniversityThe reason I chose to study CS was maintaining the strongest connection possible to the real world while pursuing a Science subject. Powerful and complex software engineering lies at the heart of most web services today: information retrieval (Google Search), entertainment (YouTube, Spotify), social apps (Facebook, Instagram), shopping (Amazon) — you name it! There are massive developments powered by Computer Science, spanning areas such as speech processing, design of faster graphics cards, new programming languages to help better and less error-prone development of apps we use every day, infrastructure for large-scale computations (think about the search query ‘Cambridge’ returning 347,000,000 results in 0.74 seconds!) So I guess you can’t get bored…

One of my main interests is machine learning — I am currently working on my third-year project which involves classifying musical genres by using a convolutional neural network (ConvNet). This is a particular kind of artificial neural network which takes biological inspiration from the animal visual cortex. ConvNets are widely used for identifying objects of interest in images (Google and Facebook use them for some of their most ambitious current projects).

At a high-level, this is what happens: if you give the network enough pictures of cats, enough pictures of other things and tell it which are cats and which are not, it will learn to identify a cat by itself. I’m using this classification method to learn features from spectrograms (visual representations of sound files) and classify music genres.

7D cat collage 2
photo from: treasure on the wall

While reading about ConvNets for the first time, I was intrigued by their ability to learn about almost anything in image format — powerful (even real-time) recognition systems can be designed. There are still some questions to be answered; for example, why do some functions used in network layers work better than others on particular classification tasks? The explanation and maths behind this is not obvious yet. ConvNets also have failings — if an image is perturbed by a very small amount of noise, humans sense almost no difference, but ConvNets get fooled; more can be understood in the future about these learning models.

This is only a single, very specific application in Computer Science — there are countless others probably being used by most people exposed to modern technology, not only within the space of web services, but also in areas such as medicine, security or banking. If you’re keen on Science subjects, I’d definitely advise you to consider Computer Science as a university degree. You can have immediate and valuable impact on people’s lives, as well as the best and most exciting career prospects, even from your undergraduate years.

Catalina Cangea
Student

I am currently in my third and final year of the Computer Science Tripos [Cambridge undergraduate course or examinations] and wish to continue with a Masters’ degree at Cambridge.

The main image is of me at the Computer Laboratory (CS department) wearing the Google Glass one of my colleagues was using while developing an application for the Group Project in second year.

School Winner: Is oxytocin the ‘moral molecule’?

Winning Entry Bournemouth School for Girls

7C Ana Valentina Florea

SchoolOxytocin is known to make the uterus contract before childbirth and trigger the release of breast milk, but it is also very important in social interactions. Some have gone as far as calling it ‘the love hormone’ or even ‘the moral molecule’. But what exactly does it do? And does it promote ethical behaviour in all situations, as some claim it does?

Paul Zak supports the view that oxytocin ‘connects us to other people’ and it is ultimately the ingredient for happiness. He, Michael Kosfeld and Markus Heinrichs conducted an experiment which is frequently used by economists to measure trust. In the experiment, person A can keep a sum of money (for example £10) or share it with person B. If shared, the investment is tripled (so £30) and B now can decide to send back part of the sum (for example, £15 so the sum is split equally) or to keep all the money. Person A therefore has to make a decision as whether or not to trust person B. They found that the more money the second person received, the more oxytocin was produced by their brain, and the more money they returned. So it’s fair to assume that this molecule facilitates social interactions and can even prove essential to our survival, as in one animal study during which the hormone was blocked in ewes, they neglected their new-born lambs.

However, the effect of oxytocin isn’t as straightforward as Zak suggests and it often depends on the situation. Shaul Shalvia and Carsten De Dreub have tested the effects of oxytocin, using an experimental game which allowed participants to lie in order to benefit the group. What they’ve found? Compared with participants who received placebo, participants receiving oxytocin lied more (and more quickly) to benefit their groups. ‘These findings highlight the role of bonding and cooperation in shaping dishonesty, providing insight into when and why collaboration turns into corruption.’ they concluded.

Jennifer Bartz has found other responses that depend on a person’s mind-set, rather than circumstances, which further discolours the rose-tinted view. She showed that socially secure people remember their mothers in a more positive light following oxytocin inhalation, while anxious ones remember them as less caring and more distant.

These studies show that oxytocin is not the saintly molecule we would love to believe it is and its effect depends greatly on individual differences and situation, so it is a rather complex chemical which allows us to look deeper into social interactions.

The problem with research into oxytocin is that often it aims to categorise its effects and see what it does, rather than how it does it. As we have seen, denominating it ‘the moral molecule’ couldn’t be further away from the truth. Understanding the underlying mechanism which this molecule uses to produce the effects we observed in these studies might lead to less enthusiastic but more accurate conclusions and maybe even development of drugs to treat social illnesses such as anxiety or autism.

Ana Valentina Florea
Student, Bournemouth School for Girls

I am 16 years old and studying Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology at Bournemouth School for Girls. I enjoy these subjects because they give me the chance to study different but complementary branches of science. I am especially fond of biological sciences and I plan on studying a course related to this at university to broaden my understanding of how the human body works. I have always admired my dad’s enthusiasm for science even though as a younger child I didn’t find it as captivating as he did. However, my adoration for science has grown over the past few years, and I now find myself reading scientific books and magazines and watching Netflix documentaries as a means of procrastinating. When I can find some free time for myself, I take pleasure in shopping for clothes and books, reading, watching films and learning about different people from various cultures.

References

Trust the “trust hormone”?  Oxytocin can increase deceit
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/science-sushi/2014/03/31/trust-trust-hormone-oxytocin-can-increase-deceit/#.VomEuxWLTWI

One Molecule for Love, Morality, and Prosperity?http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2012/07/
oxytocin_is_not_a_love_drug_don_t_give_it_to_kids_with_autism_.html

To Trust or Not to Trust: Ask Oxytocin Trust or Not to Trust: Ask Oxytocin
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/to-trust-or-not-to-trust/

Fact or Fiction?: Oxytocin Is the “Love Hormone”
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-oxytocin-is-the-love-hormone/

Trust, morality – and oxytocin?
https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_zak_trust_morality_and_oxytocin/transcript?language=en

Oxytocin promotes group-serving dishonesty
http://www.pnas.org/content/111/15/5503.abstract

Science issue: Behavioral flexibility and brain size in birds

Corina Logan (Sonia Fernandez)
Dr Corina Logan and grackle (photographed by Sonia Fernandez)

News

It’s so early it’s still dark and I’m driving to a cold, windy beach in Santa Barbara, California to catch grackles next to a roosting site I found the week before. Great-tailed grackles (Quiscalus mexicanus) are one of the most invasive native species in North America and they are presumed to be so successful because of their flexible behavior that allows them to adapt to new situations. However, their intelligence has not yet been tested so we don’t know for sure. Until now. Armed with a grant from the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program and a fellowship from the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara, I set out to determine how these grackles compare to New Caledonian crows when tested on the same experiments.

I caught four grackles at a time and brought them into aviaries to give them choice tests, and I found that on some of the tests, they are as good as the crows. As well, both species show flexible behaviors (Logan et al. 2014, Logan 2015). According to common assumptions, this is surprising because crows have much bigger brains than grackles. However, new research is showing that a larger brain doesn’t necessarily mean there are more neurons, and since neurons are the substrate on which cognition occurs, neuron number is more likely to be the crucial measure for predicting which species should possess complex cognition (Herculano-Houzel et al. 2009, Kazu et al. 2014).

The grackles are amazing to work with: they habituate to the aviary almost instantly and readily choose to participate in the choice tests.

Each one seems to have their own personality: Michelada appeared curious about human behavior because she would sit as close as she could to us and watch whatever we were doing. I wonder what she was thinking.

I put unique combinations of colored rings on their legs so I can identify individuals and study their behavior in the wild to answer questions about whether individual differences in cognitive abilities provide fitness benefits (e.g., increased numbers of offspring). One of my favorite parts of this research is when I get to take the aviary grackles back to the beach where I caught them, open the door to their transport cages, and watch them fly free in the wild again.

Corina Logan
Alumna
Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge

Do you want to see what life in the field is like in New Caledonia? Check out my National Geographic Explorers Journal video blog http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/author/corinalogan/

See the latest grackle news on twitter https://twitter.com/LoganCorina

References

Herculano-Houzel, S. (2009). The human brain in numbers: a linearly scaled-up primate brain. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 3.

Kazu, R. S., Maldonado, J., Mota, B., Manger, P. R., & Herculano-Houzel, S. (2014). Cellular scaling rules for the brain of Artiodactyla include a highly folded cortex with few neurons. Frontiers in neuroanatomy, 8.

Logan CJ, Jelbert SA, Breen AJ, Gray RD, Taylor AH (2014) Modifications to the Aesop’s Fable paradigm change performances in New Caledonian crows. PLOS ONE 9:e103049. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103049

Logan CJ. 2015. Innovation does not indicate behavioral flexibility in great-tailed grackles. bioRxiv. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/027706.

Career Path: The fascination of neuroscience and the teenage brain

7A Stephanie Burnett Heyes (2 - portrait)

CareerMy life as a scientist is varied, hectic and rewarding. I feel tremendously privileged to be doing what I do.

I’m a cognitive neuroscientist, which means that I study the brain and the mind. To do this, I use a mixture of psychology and brain imaging.

The teenage brain and mind is my main research topic. I’m interested in finding out how basic mental abilities, such as short term memory, as well as more complex abilities, such as understanding emotions and social situations, alter during the teenage years. Sometimes, I use brain scanning to look at their neural basis.

Studying teenagers is hard. A teenager is so similar to an adult that it’s hard to spot the difference. Many changes take place during adolescence, so collecting good data and interpreting it correctly can be a challenge.

But… it’s both interesting, and important. Many mental health problems begin to take root during the teenage years, and we have very little real understanding of why this is and what we can do about it.

So that’s the big picture. But what do I do all day?

Short answer: A lot of different things. Here are some of the things I’ve been working on just this week:

  • Designing experiments.  This uses a unique mix of scientific reasoning and creative insight.  In science, there is a rule book but no manual.  You have to follow scientific principles to come up with something new.  At the moment, I am experimenting with combining psychology, game theory and social network analysis.
  • Learning a new coding language.  Coding is using maths to make computers do stuff for you.  I use it to analyse data and build experiments.  When I started doing science, I thought I was rubbish at coding so I should leave it to the experts.  Then I learned that everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Writing. When I’ve done an experiment and it worked, I write it up and send it to a journal. I find this hard. Luckily, scientists tend to work in teams, so when I get stuck I ask my colleagues for help. I work with some amazing people and I really respect their opinions. Sometimes, when I’ve sent a paper off, the journal sends it back with critical comments. Then I have to construct a watertight argument that will win them over. This is fun – like intellectual sparring.
  • Teaching university students. I write lectures, mark essays, and meet with students to give guidance on assignments and check they’re ok. Sometimes students are having a hard time for various reasons. If I can do my bit to help them achieve their goals, I find that deeply rewarding.
  • Public speaking. I never thought I’d say this, but I really enjoy giving a talk in front of a couple of hundred people. If I feel nervous, I interpret it as excitement. I prepare properly and I practice what I’m going to say. I get a real buzz if it goes well.

I don’t know any other job that has such a variety of activities in a single week. I honestly think I’d get bored doing anything else.

Dr. Stephanie Burnett Heyes
School of Psychology, University of Birmingham