In January, as the Charles River began to freeze, Keith Murray and other members of MIT’s men’s heavyweight team began boarding the rowing machine. For 80 minutes at the same time, Murray endured one of the most grueling workouts of his college experience. To distract himself from the pain, he talked to his peers, covering everything from great philosophical ideas to personal coffee preferences.
For Murray, virtually any conversation is an opportunity to explore how people think and why they think in certain ways. Currently, with a double degree in computing and cognition, and linguistics and philosophy, Murray tries to understand human experience from the knowledge of all these fields.
“I’m trying to combine different approaches to understanding the complexities of human cognition,” he says. “For example, from a physiological perspective, the brain is just billions of neurons firing at a time, but that hardly scratches the surface of cognition.”
Once on campus, Murray immediately sought an opportunity through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at the Digital Humanities Laboratory. There he worked with language processing technology to analyze genre language in various novels, with the ultimate goal of showing the data to an online audience. He learned the basic mathematical models used to analyze and present data online, to study the social implications of sentences and linguistic expressions.
Murray also joined the Concourse learning community, which brought together different perspectives from the humanities, science, and math in a weekly seminar. “They gave me some great examples of how to do interdisciplinary work,” he recalls.
In the summer before his sophomore year, Murray held a position as a researcher at Harnett Lab, where instead of working on novels, he worked with mice. Along with the postdoc Lucas Fisher, Murray trained mice to do virtual reality navigation tasks. Its goal was to explore neural coding in navigation, understanding why mice behaved in certain ways after certain stimuli were displayed on screens. Spending time in the laboratory, Murray became increasingly interested in neuroscience and the biological components behind human thought processes.
He sought out other research experiences related to neuroscience, which led him to explore a SuperUROP project at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Working with Professor Nancy Lynch, she designed theoretical models of the retina through machine learning. Murray was excited to apply the techniques he learned at 9.40 (Introduction to Neural Computing) to address complex neurological problems. Murray considers this to be one of his most difficult research experiences, as the experience was entirely online.
“It was during the pandemic, so I had to learn a lot on my own; I couldn’t do exactly research in a lab. It was a big challenge, but in the end I learned a lot and ended up with a publication “, he reflects.
Last semester, Murray worked in Professor Ila Fiete’s lab at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, building models of deep learning of animals performing navigation tasks. Through this UROP, which is based on his final Fiete class 9.49 (Neural Circuits for Cognition) project, Murray has been working to incorporate existing theoretical models of the hippocampus to investigate the intersection between the intellect. Artificial intelligence and neuroscience.
Reflecting on his varied research experiences, Murray says he has been shown new ways to explore the human brain from multiple perspectives, which he finds useful when trying to understand the complexity of human behavior.
Outside of his academic activities, Murray has continued to paddle with the crew team, where he walked in his freshman year. He sees rowing as a way to strengthen his strength, both physically and mentally. “When I’m doing my class work or thinking about projects, I’m using the same mental toughness that I developed during rowing,” he says. “That’s something I learned at MIT, to cultivate the dedication you put into something. It’s the same mental toughness whether you apply it to physical activities like rowing or research projects.”
Looking to the future, Murray hopes to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience, looking for ways to incorporate his love of philosophy and human thought into his cognitive research. “I think there’s a lot more to do with neuroscience, especially artificial intelligence. There are so many new technological developments right now, ”he says.