Student Spotlight: Tom Morin (PhD ’22)

Tom Morin (PhD ’22), a fifth-year student in the Graduate Program for Neuroscience, grew up in Braintree, Mass.

As a kid, Tom always imagined that somewhere out in the world was a literal tree with brains growing out of it.

“I couldn’t wait to find this tree, pick my very own brain from among the branches, and see what it looked like,” Morin wrote in an email. “I was wrong about the tree, but now I get to look at brains all the time!”

The May 2022 degree candidate has spent the last five years working alongside Dr. Chantal Stern to research the functional brain networks that support complex cognition such as abstract reasoning and rule learning.

Their research uses methods from graph theory, treating the brain as a network and examining how the structure of the network evolves over time as the brain learns new information and completes reasoning tasks. It’s part of a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) through the Office of Naval Research.

Morin settled on this topic to combine his interests in neuroscience and computer science. In 2017, he graduated from Tufts University with a B.S. in Cognitive & Brain Science and Computer Science. At Tufts, Morin spent two years as a research assistant at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he worked with PET and MRI neuroimaging technologies.

It was his lab work during his undergraduate years that pushed him to apply to PhD programs. When he began his research at BU, he quickly learned that science doesn’t move quite as quickly as he once thought. He realized that making massive scientific strides relies on the efforts of multiple teams and studies over a long period of time—rather than just one person.

“Einstein had colleagues, just like we do too, and the field moves together,” Morin said in an interview. “Things are built off of each other, and it’s not like one study is going to change everything.”

Later this summer, Morin will begin a postdoctoral fellowship at Brandeis University and Mass General in the lab of Dr. Anne Berry. There, he’ll use MRI and PET neuroimaging to study the effect of neurochemicals, such as dopamine, on the integrity of brain networks and cognitive abilities as we age.

“We think our work could lead to new biomarkers signaling early signs of cognitive decline and/or resilience against diseases like Alzheimer’s,” Morin wrote.

Morin’s hard work throughout his PhD program at BU has evidently paid off. He defended his dissertation in March and is now tying up some loose ends and finishing final projects before commencement.

His research, however, is just one important part of his time at BU.

“People will tell you that the science and the research is the most important, and I think that’s true to an extent,” Morin said. “But no matter what lab you’re in, you’re going to find interesting questions to ask and fun research avenues to go down.”

According to Morin, it’s more important to “find your people, find your group and find a mentor who’s going to support you.” Morin found that community within his GPN cohort and several friends outside of science.

Morin specifically credits his network of fellow LGBTQ+ cohort members who, throughout the years, have become his “chosen family.”

He looks back fondly on memories like meeting up together to watch new episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race. In 2019, Morin even developed an algorithm to predict the weekly winner and loser of Season 11.

“There are so many moments that stick out in my mind,” Morin wrote, reflecting on his time at BU. “But overall, I’m deeply grateful to be part of this chosen family of queer scientists.”

Morin hopes to one day be a professor and launch his own research lab. But first, he plans to take some well-deserved time off sitting at the pool, reading some fiction and relaxing before he takes the next step into the field of neuroscience.

“Neuroscience is hard work,” Morin wrote. “The brain is super complicated, but I think the questions we’re asking as a field are fundamental to understanding the human experience. What could be more exciting?”