December 21, 2020
Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.
Vergil Haynes is graduating this month with a PhD in applied mathematics from Arizona State University. His research approaches old neuroscience questions but in new ways. Although the questions are simple in appearance, long-held assumptions about them have limited new insights for decades.
Vergil Haynes wears a surface electroencephalogram (EEG) recording cap. Surface electroencephalography is a method for recording electrical activity associated with brain physiology from the scalp.
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“Often times when you are recording activity in the brain, you don’t know precisely what influences the signals you record and this limits your ability to interpret those signals,” Haynes said. “Do they come from one type of brain cell or another? I ask, what is the origin of certain brain signals associated with individual brain cells, and whether knowledge of those origins can aid in improving data analysis techniques.”
“Another problem I’m concerned about is community standards for modeling. Many assumptions are built into very detailed simulations of brain cells. For example, cells have protein structures in their membranes. I developed a framework for figuring out whether there are common patterns for these structure in how many there are, where they are, and what they do. For both of these problems, I use a combination of simulations, machine learning, and advanced statistical techniques to also challenge assumptions about how brain cells are grouped based on recorded signals.”
“Vergil is detail oriented in his research and has an astonishing knowledge of the literature. This helps him see the big picture and understand where his work lies with respect to previous and ongoing research in the community,” said Sharon Crook, Haynes’ adviser and professor in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences.
“Vergil will stay in our group as a postdoctoral researcher for a year in order to help us advance the research that he has been contributing to. Uniquely, he has the perfect combination of skills for this work which requires both the development and execution of computational models and also machine learning to analyze large datasets,” said Crook, lead researcher of the Informatics and Computation in Open Neuroscience (ICON) Lab.
The lab contributes to large, collaborative enterprises such as the NeuroML Initiative, OpenSource Brain, and the Human Brain Project, which lead to building an interconnected infrastructure for the advancement of computing within neuroscience based on transparency and accessibility.
Vergil Haynes (third from left) with Sharon Crook (center) and other members of the ICON Lab at ASU. Photo courtesy of ICON Lab
Haynes will also continue as a post doc in the Auditory Computation and Neurophysiology Lab in the College of Health Solutions, which investigates the neural mechanisms of perceptual and cognitive functions that support auditory experience.
“I’m excited to work with the same two labs – one is very experimental oriented, and the other is very modeling oriented, and I’m at the intersection of these two,” he said.
Haynes was born and raised in Melbourne, Florida, about 30 minutes south of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. As a kid, he watched the rocket and shuttle launches from the beach. “You could actually feel the sonic boom, it would shake windows and everything,” he said. Many of his friends back home still think of him as someone who would one day be an astronaut, since that is what he was always saying.
“I think it is still a possibility,” Haynes said.
Haynes is closest to his one maternal sibling, a brother about 10 years older, born to a different father who was in the Air Force. His mother is from the Philippines and moved to the U.S. a few years after his brother was born. It was here in the states that she met Haynes’ father.
Haynes is a first-generation college student, raised primarily by his mother. His father was mostly out of the picture.
“I could probably count on two hands how many times I’ve seen him in my life,” he said. His mother had a boyfriend for most of his childhood, but they did not get along.
His brother went to juvenile detention at a young age, and was later incarcerated for marijuana-related offenses that nowadays might not involve jail time.
“Due to the lack of social mechanisms to reduce high prison recidivism rates in the U.S., and like many community re-entries, my brother was reincarcerated multiple times over his early adulthood,” Haynes said. Even after participating in a recent work-to-release program, Haynes' brother still struggles to figure out how to get his life going.
“It was like every direction I looked for a male role model, I just couldn’t find one,” Haynes said.
Vergil Haynes, a first generation college student, with his mother and niece on the ASU Tempe campus. Photo courtesy of Vergil Haynes.
His mother worked as a restorative technician at a rehabilitation nursing home back in Melbourne. She mostly worked with dementia patients, helping them to be able to feed themselves or walk again.
“My mom would work double time, overtime, lots of holiday hours, so usually it was just easier if I just stayed there all day. I mostly lived there as a kid. I’d sing to the elderly, take them to lunch, play chess or Uno with them,” Haynes said.
“My mother often won awards for being compassionate, generous and kind to co-workers and residents at the nursing home. This instilled in me that supporting people was one of greatest gifts you could give someone – and sometimes this took hard work and sacrifice.
“Those experiences were very formative in a lot of different ways in my life. Especially in trying to understand people. How do they think? Why do they wind up thinking a certain thing, or not be able to think at all, or remember at all?”
In school, Haynes’ teachers would tell him he was unmotivated, didn’t have goals – but also had a lot of potential. He would sometimes fall asleep in class. He often got in trouble, resulting in suspensions or Saturday school. He failed quite a few classes in high school and almost didn’t graduate. His counselor and principal agreed on a plan so he could take adult education classes after school and still be able to graduate.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I made all these choices and now I’m seeing the consequences of them,’ which is that I might not get this diploma,” Haynes said. “And then I’ll live this life like the rest of my family has been living, not even having finished high school.”
There was a lot of hopelessness around that period of time. But there was also the peer pressure of seeing a lot of his friends were set to graduate, so he wanted to. One of the most motivating things for him was how much time he was spending with other people’s families.
“My mom had moved out of the projects and into this fairly nice suburban area, and I had met some friends and started hanging out at their houses. It was like, ‘Oh wow,’ your dad works at NASA, your mom is a financial adviser, and you have this nice house. For the most part, there might be some yelling here or there, but it’s not constantly hostile here. I remember them giving me a lot of validation, as well.
He spent considerable time with academic advisers figuring out how he could pay for college. He got a Medallion Scholarship which paid for 75% of his tuition for a four-year degree. To cover the rest, he took out loans and worked a couple of jobs throughout his undergraduate years.
“I told my mom I was going to get a PhD and she was like, ‘How are you going to do that? We don’t have the money for that,” said Haynes. “All her co-workers said, ‘Let him dream and let him do his thing, and he’ll figure it out as he goes.’”
At the same time, Haynes found himself repeating old patterns, using avoidance behaviors. If a class interested him, he would do well. But if a class stressed him out, he would stop going. He was convinced the system was trying to keep him down. There were many setbacks, and he ended up failing a math class.
“I remember that was also the time in my life where my dad and I had tried to start talking with one another again, and I think I was still hesitant. I was finding out more about who is this person, and I wasn’t really liking what I was seeing, but I was trying to reach out and say this is something that I want to try to rebuild.”
Asking his dad for help led to a huge family blowup. “It got to the point where it was like, OK, that was my last attempt.”
That situation drove him forward, in a sense, since there was less constraining him to be near family. He was ready to go forward on his own. After getting his two-year associate degree, he transferred to the University of Central Florida, one of the largest public universities in the country. He was excited about all the different kinds of classes he could take. By the end of his first year at UCF, he changed his major from pre-med/biology to mathematics.
He was taking Calculus III, Linear Algebra, Introduction to C Programming — those were the classes that convinced him to keep going. He took a logic and proof class that he thought was really fun.
“Just the process of doing homework with people, doing projects with people and how intellectually stimulating that was, and also this sense of how I contributed some sort of value to this discussion. That was when I really started defining my personal value in relationship to math,” Haynes said. “People started coming to me asking for help or wanting for me to explain certain things. I was like, okay, actually I’m good at this.”
He had a network of people who were supporting him, but also had some people who were trying to get in his way. Particularly the faculty undergraduate adviser in the mathematics department, who he met with a couple of times. Haynes wanted to major in math with a concentration in physics. The advisor briefly looked over his academic record, which was not stellar, and then dissuaded him from pursuing that route. “Maybe this isn’t something for you,” he said to Haynes.
“I remember that resonated with me for a long time.”
Haynes knew he had an interest in research, so he reached out to a professor who studied mathematics and biology, and would later become his faculty adviser.
“It was a lot of leaning into him, weekly sessions with him. He would teach me how to read math papers and how to do research. He also instilled in me a sense of beauty.
“I still remember the time I came to him with my first result. It was really simple. And it was something he had been missing for a while. I showed it to him and he had this moment where he stepped back, leaned against the table and was like, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ And I was like, whoa, I had never shared that kind of moment with someone before. And I was kind of hooked.”