Gabriela Tavares

Making Sense of the Mind

While working toward her master’s in artificial intelligence in London, Gabriela Tavares discovered the late Oliver Sacks’ classic study, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The idiosyncrasies detailed there motivated her to switch research paths—and apply to Caltech—so she too could work toward unlocking the mind’s mysteries.

“It inspired me to start thinking about neuroscience,” she says. “I found out there was a whole program at Caltech dedicated to the interface of AI and the brain. It was perfect for me.” Today, she’s a PhD candidate in the Computation and Neural Systems (CNS) program, working in Professor Antonio Rangel’s Neuroeconomics Laboratory.

CNS, like any radically new and fast-evolving field of study, demands collaboration. It thrives at Caltech. Tavares is joined by fellow computer scientists as well as economists, psychologists, electrical engineers, and biologists all intent on answering one question: How does the brain make decisions?

Because of a major philanthropic gift from Gordon and Betty Moore and the Moore Foundation in 2001, Caltech was able to create the Center for Analysis of Higher Brain Function, which spurred a boost in activity for the (at the time) brand new field of neuroeconomics. Working in a nascent field—yet exploring age-old scientific questions—Tavares enjoys putting puzzle pieces into place: each new discovery brings the group closer to answering big questions about the brain.

“We are trying to lay the groundwork for a lot of discoveries in terms of not just understanding how the brain works, but how it causes different subjective experiences and why it malfunctions,” Tavares says. The ultimate goal is to inform solutions that will help people with issues such as addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.

By modeling the brain’s computations, Tavares and her team hope to isolate what happens when the brain’s systems don’t work as expected. “That’s the first step toward addressing those problems—understanding where they’re coming from.”

Tavares is an international student, hailing from Brazil. In the eyes of many traditional funding agencies, that makes her ineligible for support. Because of available fellowship funds at Caltech, the important research she’s doing in pursuit of her PhD is paid for.

“It’s definitely harder for international students to get fellowships—I wouldn’t have had a lot of funding options otherwise,” Tavares says.

“I love Caltech, and it really feels like home to me.”
- Gabriela Taveres

Giving Priorities