Dr. Amy Orsborn Is Making History — And She Has Some Great Advice For Women
Amy Orsborn
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This March, to celebrate the glory of Women's History Month in the best way we know how, Bustle is featuring not only women from the past, but women who are making history now. And one woman who's definitely in that category — and should enter into your collection of Women To Watch As They Do Badass Science — is Dr. Amy Orsborn, neuroscientist, bio-engineer, and all-around game-changer. Orsborn burst onto the worldwide scene in 2016, when she won a L'Oreal USA For Women In Science Fellowship for revolutionary work that attempts to use neuroscience to develop new ways for disabled people to move again. It's work that may well revolutionize the way disability medicine works. And she's only 32.

Orsborn has a lot of advice of her own to offer, from the benefits of failure to the misapprehension that you have to have an inborn "passion" from birth to reach success. And a key part of her working life is to raise female involvement in STEM fields, whether it's getting more female speakers at science conferences or encouraging girls to pick up scientific books and ask new, big questions.

Orsborn sat down with Bustle to give us some insights on how she's changing the world, what that means to her, and how failure, meandering, and a willingness to explore can be huge assets.  

How She's Changing The World

L'Oréal USA For Women In Science on YouTube

So how's Orsborn making history for disability medicine? Through the brain — her own, and those of other peoples'.

"We need to understand how our brains learn to control our natural movements," Osborn tells Bustle, "and how to design devices that seamlessly 'tap into' this complex system when there has been damage to restore function. These are hard questions. And I think they’re a bit tangled together. Without insights into the brain, we can’t develop useful therapies. But these therapies — devices and technologies that interact with and probe the brain — also help give us glimpses into how the brain works." Making these theoretical questions into real-life solutions is, she says, the "critical layer of motivation" that drives her forward.

The way she's doing things is what marks her out as a pioneer. "Currently," she explains, "most research examines the brain at a single scale. I’m working to put existing technologies together in new ways to study the brain at many different scales. By bridging between scales, we hope to gain new insights into how these complex brain networks control behavior and how they change as we learn new behaviors." The way her own research is helping is via something called brain-machine interfaces, which, she says, try to "“read out” someone’s thoughts about moving and use them to control the movements of a prosthetic." In reality, though, it's not that simple. "It’s more accurate to think of a BMI as giving the brain a new tool, which you then learn how to use much like you would learn a new motor skill. Think of it as learning to control a weird computer mouse."

We're still learning how to do this properly; robots controlled by our minds are still a way off. There are many things people like Dr. Orsborn are still trying to understand, because, she says, "we're plugging into a brain with complex structure — the neurons are wired up in particular ways." Brains need to learn to control BMIs at the same time as the BMIs link up to them, so it's an intensely complicated concept. But Orsborn is motivated. "The idea that my work might one day improve someone’s life is what keeps me in the lab late at night. The inspiration for my work is ultimately very intellectual, but the motivation is quite personal. "

On Turning Adversity Into Positivity

Amy Orborn

Orsborn was drawn to neural engineering, she says, because of her own experiences as a child. "I have a rare form of scoliosis and went to a hospital for children with physical disabilities throughout my childhood," she tells Bustle. "A quirk of development made me quite the curiosity for many doctors. Most issues are very benign, like my rare type of strabismus that makes one eye move in a limited way. It barely impacts my daily life beyond adding extra excited conversation at the eye doctor (“I’ve read about this in text books but never seen it before!”)." One problem was more severe, though: a spine defect that meant she would later undergo surgery to have it fused.

The advantage of that, however, was that she began to understand the value of being able to move freely. "Since my spine is fused," she says, "I can’t turn my head. This very small limitation has a notable impact on how I interact with the world. Moving is so integral to how we express ourselves, how we interact with the world." This deep respect for movement grew into a drive to help people with motor disabilities.  "In college, when I learned about researchers exploring revolutionary ways to restore this essential freedom of movement to people with paralysis, it immediately resonated with me."

On Why Failure Is A Key Part Of Success

Amy Orsborn

If you're contemplating a career in STEM, particularly at the practical end, Orsborn has a message: be prepared for failure, and energized by it. "Most days in the lab are full of failures," she says, bluntly. "Complex equipment breaking, an elusive bug in your code, experiments generating results that leave you scratching your head — the list goes on and on." Even she, as a leading light, has had huge setbacks — "a few huge ones that render months of work moot, where tears were shed and a drink or two was needed."

And if you struggle with perfectionism, Orsborn sympathizes. "It is very easy to internalize failure." Somewhat shockingly, "in college and grad school, I often took it as a sign I wasn’t cut out for science and research." Imagine what we'd have lost if she'd believed that. "Eventually," Orsborn explains, "I realized that every scientist, no matter how hard working, smart, or talented, struggles. We’re working on things where no one knows the right answer, often using techniques only a few people in the world know how to do, all to do something no one else has done before."

Even if you're not in the sciences, Orsborn's advice on how to move on from failure is valuable. "Figuring out problems and learning from them is all you can really ask of yourself," she says. "Failures are a chance to challenge yourself and grow, to learn new things. As long as you’re continually doing that, you’re succeeding. Even if your experiment still doesn’t work and you haven’t reached your main goal."

On Why Not Knowing Exactly What You Want To Do Is OK

It turns out that not all history-makers are driven from childhood by an intense drive to do one particular thing. "Growing up," Orsborn says, "I was what I call an equal-opportunity nerd. I went to band camp, but also excelled in math classes. I dove deep into anything that interested me. My career is the ultimate result of a long string of decisions, all mostly driven by what sounded interesting. It was by no means a career plan!"

Far from being a scientist from birth, she wasn't even a neuroscientist until her last year of college. After summers in college doing research projects in everything from particle physics to biomedical engineering ("I was a little all over the place"), she became fascinated by the brain. "I knew almost nothing and had zero experience in the area, but it sounded exciting. So I applied to graduate school to learn more. When my graduate training was wrapping up, I knew something about the brain and neural engineering. But the more I learned, the more I realized how much we still don’t understand." So she kept applying for chances to ask more questions. Her latest post, as an assistant professor in electrical engineering and bio-engineering at the University of Washington, is just the latest in a string of question-asking, always with new queries popping up to replace the ones she answers.  

"It would be disingenuous to suggest I planned on ending up here," she says. "I had no idea the type of research I do existed until my senior year of college!" But there are lessons to be learned from her meandering: "I ended up here because I was paying close attention, was open to new things I discovered, and followed whims from time to time."

On Why Always Being "Good" Isn't As Valuable As Trying

Alongside her research, just in case she didn't have enough on her hands, Orsborn is also taking on a key problem in STEM: the underrepresentation of women at academic conferences. Through the project STEMM Role Models, she and other co-organizers are facing the sexism head-on, creating a ready-made collection of female scientists ready and able to speak on every topic imaginable.

Representation is important for Orsborn, but so is the presence of girls going into STEM at all. "Research shows young girls are often raised and socialized to be “good,” and “smart,” rather than training them to try hard," she tells Bustle. "We then often focus on being talented and shy away from things that are hard or new, because we’re trained that failure and working hard are bad, and signal some innate inability or inaptitude. But you grow and develop your skills by challenging yourself. These challenges will, undoubtedly, come with failures. But that’s fine! It’s a good thing."

If you want to get started in STEM or have an interest, but have no experience whatsoever, guess what? Orsborn thinks you've got what it takes, as long as you want to take the first step.

"Think machine learning sounds interesting, but don’t know much about it? Pick up a book and start trying a few things. Ask people for guidance in getting started. Everyone — even the leading experts — had to start somewhere," she says. "I am constantly reminding myself of this. It’s so easy to get comfortable. Resist being comfortable and always push yourself. If you’re failing from time to time, it probably means you’re on to something interesting."