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In the unlikely tale of a high school dropout turned neuroscience enthusiast, my journey from sidelined dreams to delving into the mysteries of the brain is one of resilience, curiosity, and an unwavering determination to make a difference. My goal today is to integrate new technologies with artificial intelligence and multi-disciplinary studies to both get to the root of understanding psychiatric illnesses and to develop novel treatments and methods to improve overall mental wellbeing.


Hi! I’m Luke Engel, a second-year student here at Chapel Hill, double majoring in neuroscience and computer science with a minor in chemistry. Born on the east coast, yet raised in California, my unexpected path has led me from sunny San Diego to the northernmost state of Alaska, now to the vibrant community of Chapel Hill. My story unfolds from the unexpected detour that was my freshman year of high school.


It all began with a significant concussion that not only forced me to drop out of high school for a few months but also reshaped my entire perspective. The aftermath of the injury left me grappling with the uncertainty of recovery, however, sparked my fascination, near obsession, with the brain’s incredible ability to heal itself. This pivotal moment shifted my focus from dreams of becoming a college D1 quarterback to a new vision of providing hope for recovery for the many in the grips of various mental illnesses by learning to harness the brain’s natural ability to change.


As I battled persistent migraines and other symptoms from the injury and sought treatment, I encountered a world where individualized diagnostic and treatment plans were sorely lacking. The guessing game surrounding mental health treatments fueled my desire to understand the intricacies of the brain. My first-hand experience and self-study journey revealed a gap in our understanding and treatment of mental health issues, motivating me to contribute to the development of personalized approaches to recovery.


With determination, resilience, and some luck, I caught up on missed classes and surged ahead of the typical curriculum through online courses, setting the stage for a difficult, yet transformative move to Alaska in my junior year of high school. There, I embraced opportunities at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, taking classes full time, participating in a business leadership cohort, engaging in neuroscience courses, and contributing to an animal ethics research project (WELLANIMAL) under Dr. Raymond Anthony. A part-time job working with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) in the community further enriched my experiences. My time in Alaska was geared towards making an impact in the community while best preparing myself to take advantage of future opportunities for when they would arise.


Fast forward to Chapel Hill, where my eagerness to learn from the best led me to the Neurocognition and Imaging Research Lab (NIRL) through the Gil Internship. A major focus of the lab is identifying markers in adolescence that could predict the breakdown of healthy neural circuitry causing schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. Under the mentorship of Dr. Aysenil Belger, my role with the lab was multi-faceted, including involvement in the multi-institutional $52 million NIH funded Psychosis Risk Outcomes Network (PRONET) study, porting fMRI tasks from Presentation to PsychoPy, conducting literature reviews and assisting with grant writing, contributing to the recruitment process of the upcoming Pathways to Adolescent Success Study (PASS), and working with another student on a thesis exploring the role of free play on stress and cognition in early development.


I gained numerous insights into the workings of various neuroimaging methods such as EEG, fNIRS, fMRIs, and the specific markers these methods detect. Along with this, I attended various trainings for both the hands-on application of these methods, and the signal interpretation and processing of the data. Understanding and familiarizing myself with these data collection methods was the most exciting part for me as the field starts to envision new ways to harness this information. These experiences will prove invaluable as I continue to contribute to the work done in this lab and will be able to holster these skills in my future research endeavors.


As I reflect on my internship experience, my next steps involve collaborating with Dr. Belger and Dr. Martin Styner from the neighboring Neuro Image Research and Analysis Lab (NIRAL) on developing and training a machine learner to run atypicality analyses on neuroimaging data this upcoming semester. Looking to the future, my aspirations extend to the development of novel brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), integrating AI/machine learning, psychiatry, neuroscience, neurofeedback, and psychology using real-time brain activity to train healthier thinking patterns in patients. Not only does this have implications for those suffering from maladaptive neurological patterns, but for the general public as well. The recent findings on the usefulness of and increase in attention on BCIs leads me to believe that they will be a useful mechanism for improving individualized approaches to mental health care.


I am extremely grateful for the support, mentoring, and opportunities that have arisen from the Gil program, and I am excited to see where this path leads. My experience is a testament to pivoting and overcoming setbacks when possible and working to succeed in a new environment. The challenges I faced fueled my passion for understanding the complexities of the brain and addressing the gaps in mental health treatment. As I continue on this path, my goal remains clear: to contribute to a future where personalized approaches revolutionize mental health care and provide hope and healing to those in need.


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