ASU honors student explores the depths of neuroscience, machine learning


Neuroscience students Katrina Ager and Hector Leon study together on ASU’s Tempe campus.

Katrina Ager is earning a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience.

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Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Katrina Ager's academic journey has been fueled by a deep curiosity about the human mind. 

From understanding cognition to unraveling behavior, she has been enthralled by the complexities and mathematical nature of the brain. This passion led her to pursue a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience from ASU’s Department of Psychology, a unit within The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as certificates in applied business data analytics and computational life sciences.

During her academic tenure, Ager completed an internship at the world-famous Allen Institute for Neural Dynamics, where she contributed to the OpenScope Databook, a resource that addresses reproducibility issues and teaches computational analysis techniques to analyze publicly available data. This experience amplified her passion, particularly at the intersection of neuroscience and technologies like machine learning.

Katrina Ager smiles at the camera.
Katrina Ager

"There is so much about the brain that remains a mystery, and it may not be understood in my lifetime, but it is something that will captivate me for the rest of my life," Ager said. “I have always been fascinated by the human condition: what it means to think, feel, love, interact, contemplate and experience life in deep ways.”

A member of Barrett, The Honors College, Ager excelled, maintaining a 4.0 GPA and earning a place on the Dean's List each semester. Financial assistance from programs like ASU’s President Barack Obama Scholars Program and the New American University President’s scholarship supported her academic journey.

Read more about Ager’s ASU experience and plans moving forward.

Question: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

Answer: Never judge anyone before you get to know them and try to be curious about other people's experiences and perspectives. I have met some of my best friends and learned so much from people I might never have interacted with if I had not actively tried to get to know my peers. I believe you can learn something from everyone you meet, and it's important to be open to new perspectives and friendships during a time when everyone is learning about themselves and life.

Question: Was there a specific professor or mentor that significantly impacted your time at ASU?

Answer: Professor Samuel McClure has, without a doubt, been the person who has taught me the most important lessons and supported me throughout my academic career. If you talk to anyone who has taken his class, they would agree that Dr. McClure is a person who truly cares about his students and provides the support they need to excel academically and in life. Dr. McClure has continuously inspired me, shown me the value of working hard and staying curious, and helped me achieve my goals inside and outside of the classroom. I think this campus is a better place with people like him, and I am extremely grateful to have had his mentorship over the past four years.

Question: Were there any specific experiential learning opportunities that significantly influenced your academic and personal growth during your time at ASU?

Answer: Working as a lab manager for Dr. Gene Brewer’s Memory and Attention Control Lab at ASU has significantly impacted my academic journey. Exploring different research labs as an undergraduate was essential to figuring out what interested me. I am fortunate to be surrounded by a supportive and caring team at the MAC Lab, and I genuinely look forward to going to work and interacting with my lab mates. Being a lab manager has contributed to my understanding of how research is conducted, taught me how to ask powerful questions to gain insights and how to work effectively with a team. 

Question: What did your honors thesis explore?

Answer: For my honors thesis, I worked under the mentorship of Dr. McClure to understand how a new machine learning model lets us measure neurotransmitter concentrations in the human brain. The model was developed by Dr. Read Montague at Virginia Tech, and his team has been incredibly supportive in allowing me to use their model and data for my thesis. This research is groundbreaking, as it can track sub-second changes in concentrations of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.

Question: What is something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: One thing that has changed my perspective has been recognizing the importance of interacting with my peers, truly listening when they speak and approaching everything with a curious mind. During my sophomore year, I took a special topics class on dopamine with Professor Samuel McClure and Assistant Research Professor Kimberlee D’Ardenne that revealed the importance of community for me. It was one of the first in-person classes I had after being on Zoom for a year-and-a-half due to COVID, and everyone was extremely eager to connect face-to-face. Aside from being very informative and interesting academically, the happiness, support and genuine interest in connection among people in the class were unmatched. 

That excitement bred many interesting conversations and led to a deeper understanding about the topics being discussed. I absorbed so much knowledge from listening to my friends in the class. It has made me put effort into approaching other areas of my life with the same curiosity. That class has been instrumental in my education because it made me realize that no matter what I end up doing with my degree, as long as I am surrounded by supportive, curious and passionate people, I will be just fine.

Question: Can you share more about your plans after graduation?  

Answer: I am excited to have recently accepted a position at the Dynamical Inference Lab at the Institute of Computational Biology of Helmholtz Munich. Under the mentorship of Steffen Schneider, I will be gaining experience in software development, computational neuroscience and machine learning. I also plan to simultaneously pursue a master’s degree while I am working abroad. I am eager to move to Germany in the fall and will be staying for one to two years. In the future, I hope to transition into industry and work for a company — or start one myself — that is grounded in a humanitarian mission while being on the cutting edge of science and technology.

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