Published 5 October 2023 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research #LINO23: Avi Aizenman

Avi connects AI and medicine. All Photos/Credits: in courtesy of Avi Aizenman

Avi from the USA is a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Giessen, Germany.

Our eyes are constantly moving, allowing us to process the world around us. Avi studies the eye movements we make as we move around our natural world and in environments like virtual reality. This work reveals the way our vision is optimised and evolved to the natural environment around us and highlights the ways virtual reality doesn’t match the natural world we’ve adapted to.

Avi participated in the 72nd Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Avi and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

My fascination with the human brain and mind began in high school after I read ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge. This book describes the principles of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and adapt even in adulthood. For a long time, scientists considered the adult brain to be unchangeable, but new research called into question this assumption by showing examples of how malleable and flexible the brain can be. This book describes a surgeon who, after a stroke, regained function with rehabilitation and the process by which skills lost during the stroke transferred to healthy neural regions. I was amazed to learn about a woman born with only half a brain whose neural architecture has been rewired to accommodate functionality with only a single hemisphere. This book left me reeling at the capabilities of the mind to change and adapt even in adulthood. Additionally, I was especially intrigued by the shift in the scientific community coming to embrace neural plasticity after years of considering the brain fixed and unchanging. The promise of research and updating current knowledge to build on the unknown excited my high school self and seemed like a new way of understanding the world I wanted to explore.

Who are your role models?

I am incredibly inspired by the early female career researchers surrounding me. They have such fire and passion to excel scientifically, creating well-thought-out and careful science, all while balancing a passion for mentorship and a desire to create diverse and inclusive research groups. I find that there is a shift in how early career researchers are choosing to balance scientific excellence and mentorship, and it is deeply satisfying and inspiring to see.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

When I first arrived at Brandeis University for my undergraduate studies, I knew I wanted to get research experience. At the same time, I had signed up for a perception class, fully expecting to drop the class after the first lecture due to boredom. Thank goodness I attended that first class, as the first lecture completely blew me away! I had never considered the different ways humans, animals, and machines perceive and that my own perception wasn’t necessarily a veridical representation of the world but a fine-tuned representation honed over years of evolution. In my own experience, vision happened so seamlessly and automatically that I had never stopped to consider the complex ballet of chemical and electrical signals a single particle of light elicited in order for me to see. After a single class, I was completely hooked! I regularly attended office hours with Professor Robert Sekuler (who taught this course), and he very patiently answered all my questions, clarifying my understanding of the material. After the semester finished, Professor Sekuler invited me to join his lab as an undergraduate research assistant.

This was probably the most challenging time in my research career. Although I was fascinated by the material, I needed to learn a massive amount to contribute substantially to the research. All the analyses and experiments in Professor Sekuler’s lab were programmed in MATLAB, and I had to teach myself to code both auditory and visual stimuli. Programming was a completely new language with its own convoluted logic, and every line felt like an uphill battle. I had to learn how to teach myself, and it was only with the support of another graduate student in the lab that I could succeed. I completed my undergraduate thesis in this lab, looking at the role musicianship plays in audiovisual integration. I greatly enjoyed my experience. However, I wasn’t sure I was ready to commit to a full Ph.D. program. Professor Sekuler was a phenomenal mentor and advised me to take a few years to work as a research assistant to ensure that research was the right path for me.

Avi Aizenman and her professor during graduation
Avi and her professor Dennis Levi at her graduation

I continued working as a research assistant with Professor Jeremy Wolfe at Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital. For the first time, I spent most of my days doing research, which introduced me to eye tracking with radiologists. My research quantified how highly trained radiologists read complex medical images by tracking gaze. I enjoyed my time in the lab so much that I continued to a vision science Ph.D. program at UC Berkeley, working with Professor Dennis Levi and Professor Marty Banks. A Ph.D. is never an easy endeavor, but COVID-19 made human subjects research even more complicated! Partway through my Ph.D. I had to abandon my main project and transition to a topic I could work on remotely. My research focused on the key differences between how our visual system and gaze work in virtual reality compared to the natural world. I was incredibly privileged to have the support and wisdom of mentors that guided me through this challenging time to finish my Ph.D. successfully. Now I am an Alexander von Humboldt Research fellow, currently working with Professor Karl Gegenfurtner at the University of Giessen. My work is focused on understanding how the eye movements we make during visual judgments support our decision-making in virtual reality and how we categorise colors. It is such a privilege to be living and working in Germany. I am lucky to collaborate with incredible researchers in a dynamic and active department.

My journey is a testament to the importance of quality mentorship; at every step of the way, I had the privilege of working with phenomenal mentors who believed in me and the importance of my scientific development.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

It’s difficult for me to pick just one project as the ‘coolest’ I’ve worked on. Every project is its own learning experience that comes with new and unique challenges and opportunities for growth. I do feel particular pride for my main Ph.D. project. This work showed that there are key differences between how our visual system and eye movements work in virtual reality compared to the natural world. It turns out our natural world isn’t randomly structured, and our brain takes these regularities into account, allowing us to see quickly, comfortably, and accurately in the natural environment. My work showed that there is a mismatch between the regularities in the natural environment and virtual reality, leading to conflict and discomfort in virtual reality. This work proposes improvements to virtual reality headset design and content to be more consistent with the natural world, which is particularly exciting for me when considering the applications of virtual reality in medicine, training, teaching, and research. As virtual reality is more broadly used for medical interventions (as in planning surgeries or visual rehabilitation), reducing the mismatch between Virtual Reality and the natural world is critical for improving the transfer of skills from Virtual Reality training to daily life.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

As a scientist, my work begins in the laboratory. However, I consider a significant portion of my impact lies in my role as a mentor, educator, and advocate within my community. As much as I have felt pride during big moments, I have worked for, such as being called ‘Dr. Aizenman’ for the first time, accepting an Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship, and being invited to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, there are many understated moments that resonate with me just as intensely.

During my time in grad school, I helped develop content to teach first graders about the eyes and the importance of vision. The community I was teaching in has many pockets of wealth inequality, and we purposefully targeted schools in underserved communities. It was incredibly powerful to reach students in these communities. Children are so excited to learn about science and the world around them. They were incredibly excited to meet us as many of these students have never met a scientist before, and it was powerful for them to see that many of us researchers don’t necessary look like the stereotypical white, older, and male scientists that appear on tv. A few students approached me and told me they now want to be scientists too and want to help create knowledge. These moments fill me with unspeakable pride as I have the power to break down stereotypes of what science looks like, and I am able to show students how their questions and hypotheses about the world are all part of the scientific process.

What is a “day in the life” of you like?

Every day looks different for me (which is part of the reason I love research!), but typically I wake up around 6:00 AM and usually do a few minutes of yoga and stretching to get myself going. With a cup of tea and my dog sitting next to me, I plan my day. I am a ‘morning person,’ so I try to get writing done in the quiet of the morning, as my productivity is best then. Around 8:30 or so, I walk to work. Once I arrive at work, I prioritise my to-do list and typically work for an hour or two on programming analyses, new experiments, or writing. During the semester, there are multiple lab meetings throughout the week, which take up an hour or two in the morning. Following these meetings, I usually take a break for lunch.

My afternoons are typically divided between meetings, programming new experiments or analyses, and writing. My research is highly collaborative, and throughout the week, I typically have meetings with collaborators to check in and discuss progress on the experiments and with students who assist me with my research. My experiments test human participants, and helping run studies is a great way for undergraduate or master’s students to get research experience and to learn more about the science behind our studies. I often meet with my students and assistants throughout the week. The rest of my day is devoted to programming new experiments, which typically involves creating new virtual reality environments, confirming these environments work the way they should, and checking that the data we want to collect is being properly saved. This data is the foundation of our research, and properly saving all the variables we want to analyse is critical! We use different programming languages and tools to analyse this data, and often I will use afternoons to update analysis scripts and create new plots.

At around 5-6:00 PM, I usually head home. I enjoy cooking and try to cook at home a few times a week. I will use time in the evenings to try to call family back home in the USA. I spend time with my husband and dog and try to use this time to relax. Depending on deadlines, the length of my to-do lists, and the stage of a research project I am in, I do sometimes work in the evenings. I love reading for fun and will try to squeeze in at least a few pages of the latest book I am reading.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Avi during a presentation
Avi likes to contribute to research that helps people with health issues.

It would be a great privilege to be able to lead a small research group of my own in the future. In my own experience, mentorship has played a critical role in my development as a scientist and person. My goal would be to nurture an environment where students are excited to learn and motivated to pursue research topics of interest. As I don’t believe in a ‘one size fits all’ approach to mentorship, I would only want to take on a few students at a time to be able to personalise my mentorship to each student’s needs. Diversity and inclusion continue to be a priority for me, and I plan to implement hiring practices that take this into account and to think creatively about ways to reduce the ‘leaky pipeline’ phenomenon in academia. Interventions at the grassroots level could include opening opportunities to undergraduate or high school interns to give young women exposure to the scientific process and the opportunities available to them early on in their careers. I plan to continue outreach efforts within my community as well.

Currently, I see my future research group focusing on human perception and understanding how eye movements support our exploration of the world and the tasks we execute. I want to continue understanding how our adaptations to the natural world optimise visually guided behavior and how these interruptions in virtual reality impact our experience. It would be incredibly useful to develop guidelines on how to effectively and appropriately use virtual reality as a research tool while taking into account the ways virtual reality deviate from the natural world.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

Outside of research, I enjoy reading for fun and baking/cooking. I love traveling, and exploring Germany (and Europe) with my husband and dog has been wonderful. We are always on the lookout for a new restaurant or café to try, and there are many to explore!

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

If you are in college, take any and every opportunity to step outside your comfort zone and to take new classes. If a topic sparks excitement for you, follow up on it! Don’t be shy; approach TAs or professors during office hours; they are there for your learning and can support you to further your passion! Take any and every opportunity to gain research experience, and regardless of what scientific area you are interested in, take a basic computer science course. Science and statistics rely on computers, and a savviness for the logic behind programming will serve you at every step of your career.

For women in any stage of science: Prioritise good mentorship and an environment you can thrive in. Excellent science doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it is a team sport that takes a village. You should do your best to surround yourself with mentors who care about you and your growth and are prepared to invest in your development. It is even better if you can join a dynamic research group where collaboration is prioritised.

Finally, science is a daunting and audacious endeavor; you are walking on a precarious tightrope between what we already know and the unknown. The scientific method is a process for creating new knowledge, and this is an uncomfortable process. Growth is only possible through uncertainty, but that does not mean you should start doubting yourself. Trust the process, the experience, and (most importantly) your instincts. It is good to be out of your comfort zone, that is where growth happens, but do not let imposter syndrome fool you; you have every right to be where you are and to be asking the tough questions. People you meet on your journey will support and encourage you, project this kindness forward! Research can be challenging, but don’t lose sight of your passion and compassion in the process.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

There is an incredible amount of excitement around virtual reality and augmented reality. The promise of being able to create and experience rich and immersive 3D environments that one has total control over has far-ranging applications from medicine to training/teaching and research. Virtual/augmented reality is at a very interesting turning point. We’re seeing that major companies are starting to step into the arena and develop headsets of their own. This is leading to an increase in the resources being allocated towards developing and improving these headsets, which in turn pushes the market to improve and build upon existing technology. These devices are also at a unique phase where many pieces are starting to come together; different companies are finding unique solutions to improve usability and comfort through a wider field of view and greater resolution. However, there are still problems that are quite challenging to solve in optics and display technology that impede usability, comfort, and ultimately user adoption. With so many companies working towards the common goal of developing a head-mounted display with wide usability and appeal, it will be very exciting to see how headset technologies develop and the breakthroughs in display technology that will arise in the future.

Alongside these breakthroughs on the hardware development side of virtual/augmented reality, developing virtual reality content is becoming easier than ever. As a result, new startups are entering the market that aim to approach medicine and rehabilitation in new and exciting ways. For example, the FDA has recently approved a virtual reality treatment for amblyopia (also known as lazy eye). This is a relatively common visual disorder that arises due to abnormal visual experiences early in life, where one of the eyes is weaker than the other. Amblyopia is typically diagnosed and treated in children, but the gold standard treatment involves ‘patching’ (or covering) the stronger eye to force the weaker eye to work harder. Many children feel this intervention carries a social stigma (as they have to wear an eye patch, pirate style), and the beauty of a virtual reality intervention is that children have the freedom to undergo treatment in the privacy of their own homes, in a fun and engaging way. In the future, medicinal training may also benefit from virtual/augmented reality. One can imagine the richness of technical trainings and teaching when supplemented by virtual content. Having taught optometry students anatomy and seen firsthand the struggle of connecting how the arteries, veins, and nerves run alongside one another in the human body, a virtual reality application that could bring these concepts to life would be incredibly powerful for teaching future clinicians.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?

This is a complex question that doesn’t have a simple fix. In order to increase the number of female scientists, we need to acknowledge our own biases and create more inclusive environments, all of which need to start from a very young age. Gender biases should be removed from all learning materials. The examples of male engineers and scientists and the female depictions of nurses and teachers do harm to both genders by priming specific roles for certain genders. Creating support groups and mentorship opportunities for young women highlights the possibility of careers in science and creates dialogue for young women with established female researchers and potential mentors. I personally find volunteering in classrooms provides very powerful opportunities to reach out to young women and to have conversations about what life is like as a woman in science. It is powerful for young women to see that they are represented in research and scientific discourse and to make connections to potential mentors.

In general, there needs to be better diversity and balance at all levels of science, from individual labs to invited speakers, search committees, conference presenters, and organisations. This creates engagement with female scientists, giving them a chance to shape the future direction of science. On a wider societal level, there needs to be far more support to avoid the ‘productivity penalty’ that arises when women start families and have children. Women shouldn’t have to choose between science and family, but that is the reality of the world we are currently in. These are not easy (or cheap) fixes in the short term, but in the long run, these policies best facilitate diversity and inclusion, giving women the support they need to thrive in science.

Further Information

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.