Amy Robinson maxed out her bank account to attend TEDGlobal 2010. While there, she heard Sebastian Seung of MIT give the talk “I am my connectome” and knew she had to talk to him.
Two years later, Robinson—the organizer of TEDxHuntsville—saw on Twitter that Seung was launching something new: EyeWire, a game allowing citizen scientists around the world to map the 3D structure of neurons. Robinson sent Seung an email, casually suggesting some ways to get people excited to play. Soon after, Robinson was hired as EyeWire’s creative director.
Robinson talked to Science Careers this week, telling them more about the email that got her this amazing job and what it was like to co-author EyeWire’s first scientific paper, in the new issue of Nature. And we had a few more questions for Robinson. An edited transcript below …
What did you and Sebastian Seung bond over at TEDGlobal 2010?
I heard his presentation about the connectome and knew I had to talk with him. I’ve always been curious about consciousness, so we chatted a bit about the brain and then went our separate ways. We kept in touch over email over the years. It wasn’t until I learned that he was starting to build EyeWire that we really started putting our heads together, though.
EyeWire had an exhibit at TED2014. Tell us about it.
The exhibit was inspired by the thought: if you could see “ideas worth spreading,” what would they look like? They would be neurons, making synapses. While we can’t see this in real-time, high resolution yet, we can see some of the beauty of the brain. Our lab has some of the highest resolution images and animations in the world. So for TED, we put together an experience that would show attendees the complexity of a few of the cells that help make you who you are. We synced up with Microsoft Research and used their platform World Wide Telescope to take this exhibit to the next level.
When entering the exhibit, visitors saw an 18-million pixel screen, 20 feet across, loaded up with a circuit of neurons discovered by EyeWire gamers. This screen was hooked up to a KINECT, so you could fly through the field just by gesturing your hands. But the real fun begins when you put on an Oculus Rift. First, TEDsters flew toward and around the International Space Station. Virtual reality is extraordinary, and Oculus Rift tracks your head movements, so when you look around, what you see on the screen changes accordingly. It’s fully immersive — TEDsters frequently said they felt like they were in the movie Gravity. You could look behind you and see the Milky Way or look up and see huge solar panels. Look down and there’s Italy passing by below.
After a two-minute flight around the ISS, the screen faded to black and the participants began to fly through an alien-esque place with spindly, branched structures — the neurons. At first we showed only four cells so TEDsters could see the spatial organization and physical variance of different cell types. Then we faded in 15 neurons as participants flew through a tangled field of branches with huge cell bodies above and below.
This is just a taste of the complexity of the brain — 15 neurons are nothing compared to the 80 billion in the human brain. We hope that by showing these neurons in spectacular nanoscale resolution in this environment, we sparked a bit of awe and wonder for the future of neuroscience. I personally think projects like this give a little more love to design and visualization in scientific fields. It’s hard to imagine the possibilities if you can’t even see the present.
You guys just released an animation that gives a taste of what TEDsters saw in this exhibit. What do you want someone to experience while they watch?
I hope people find it beautiful, stunning and complex. This alien world is inside each of us and it’s mostly unexplored territory. In some ways, the greatest journey is not to a far away world. It’s so close that it is us; it’s the brain. We’re making progress toward understanding the mind faster than has ever been possible in human history. If you care about the brain, if you have even an ounce of curiosity for understanding how you are who you are, then now is an exciting time to be alive.
You organized a TEDx event. What inspired you to do that?
I’d been a fan of TED for a while, but hadn’t heard of TEDx until my little sister told me about TEDxNashville. I signed up immediately—I drove two hours to get there. It was so wonderful that, during the reception, I decided I had to do TEDxHuntsville. When I got back, I saw that TEDxHuntsville already existed. I reached out and found out that, in order to do the type of event I imagined, I had to go to TED. That’s why I went—in part to facilitate a TEDx event. It was surreal, wonderful, mind-blowing. I’ve been hooked ever since.
What are some big lessons you’ve learned from your TED experience that you’d like to share with others?
First, ask daring questions. TEDsters are bold and know how to catalyze great conversations. I think I took it to heart — or mind, rather — that you need to ask important questions. It signals to people from the start that you want to have meaningful interactions.
Second, I learned that collaborations often have no preset format because there aren’t rules for things that haven’t been done before. EyeWire is a good example. It’s similar to FoldIt, but still quite different. We are trailblazing every day—we try loads of new things. Usually they work; sometimes they don’t. But when we fail, we fail quickly and learn from our mistakes.
Finally and most important, talk to strangers. Not about junk like shopping or sports — and instead of asking people what they do, try asking them why they do what they do. Just reach out to people you find interesting. This has proven immensely valuable in my life and has led to innumerable friendships and collaborations. I wouldn’t be at MIT if I hadn’t reached out to Sebastian.