Clayton Aldern received a rather prestigious gift for his birthday this year.
Two days before his birthday, the 2009 St. Francis High School graduate learned he was one of 32 Americans to receive a Rhodes Scholarship, which will take him to Oxford University in England next fall for two years.
It has been a couple of weeks since he heard about the scholarship and it is just starting to become real to him, Aldern said.
But before Aldern can go to Oxford, “I have to graduate first,” he said. Aldern is a senior at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
The neuroscience major still does not know which Oxford University college he will be attending, but Aldern does know what he wants to work on.
“I am really excited about the brain-computer interface,” Aldern said.
He wants to work on ways that the computer can translate the thought pattern into action for people who have become paralyzed or have a brain injury, such as a stroke, that inhibits communication, according to Aldern.
The problem isn’t that the muscles have stopped working, it is that the impulses from the brain are not getting through to the muscle, Aldern said.
Using a computer, he wants to study ways to restore interface between the brain and the muscles, he said.
Aldern credits the teachers at Brown University with his interest in the field.
“There is a lot of great work being done at Brown,” he said.
His interest is a product of being around the giants in the field, Aldern said.
When he applied for a lab position in his sophomore year, it was less about the work being done in the lab and more about getting to work in a lab, he said.
But once he started, Aldern said the work was interesting.
He was working on the computations for the work being done by Dr. Rebecca Burwell, professor of psychology, he said.
In his lab, they are studying vision distinction for object recognition and the link to decision making, Aldern said.
Aldern is more interested in computational neuroscience and mathematical quantifications than the behavior experiments being done, he said.
Applying for the Rhodes Scholar program, founded in 1903, was very different than most college applications, Aldern said.
The application process started in May with him seeking an internal endorsement from Brown University, he said.
Once he had the endorsement in August, Aldern had to find eight letters of endorsement.
That is harder than it sounds, Aldern said.
But a much tougher step followed – having to write a personal statement.
It was a project proposal of sorts, but the selection committee is more interested in the applicants as people than about their academics, said Aldern, who is also the editor-in-chief for the Brown Daily’s weekly magazine, Post-magazine.
“I went through 10 drafts before I was happy,” he said.
He had to talk about himself in a deeply intimate and committed way, Aldern said.
Only 83 Rhodes scholars are chosen each year from around the world.
The scholarship pays for the university fees, airfare to England and a second ticket for the return trip at the end of the scholarship as well as a personal stipend.
Aldern is already contemplating the future beyond the university.
Once he completes his masters and PhD program, Aldern would like to do some writing.
“I am up in the air on what,” Aldern said.
“I am interested in science writing and the communication of science. Or writing a book.”
But his dream job would be a curator at some cutting edge science museum, Aldern said.
Tammy Sakry is at firstname.lastname@example.org