For Michael Li, a freshman at Princeton University, the human brain is not a mystery so much as an endless source of intrigue. In 2015, when he was still a high school student in rural Maryland, Li was accepted into the Simons Summer Research Program at Stony Brook University, a highly competitive science-research program for high school students. Though he's long had an interest in neuroscience, Li was shocked to be accepted, and says that, afterward, his life changed drastically.
"I had never been exposed to so many like-minded peers. I had never been given such a great opportunity to explore my academic interests at a rigorous and comprehensive level," Li says. "My research project aligned perfectly with my interests and I was suddenly thrust into this wonderful new universe that I had no clue even existed just months prior."
That world served him well. It was during the program that he developed the research that made him a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search in 2016, one of the nation's most revered pre-collegiate science competitions. Li developed a statistical model that studies how neurons in the part of the brain involved in sensory processing—known as the posterior parietal cortex, or PPC—engage in complex decision-making.
His results suggest that these neurons utilize use two complementary strategies: "Some PPC neurons form functional categories to perform specialized tasks, serving as 'experts,' while other PPC neurons, serving as 'multi-taskers,' respond to multiple parameters to arrive at a decision during complex tasks." This research helps improve scientists' fundamental understanding of how the brain works. Down the line, Li says, this kind of research could be applied to advancing the treatment of degenerative neurological diseases.
Being a finalist opened a lot of doors for Li, who says that he's learned that "youth and inexperience can be your strengths." But even while rubbing shoulders with Nobel laureates—and standing next to Neil deGrasse Tyson—Li maintains a youthful wonder and humility that will serve him well as he continues his undergraduate studies at Princeton, where he is currently a freshman.
Li is also interested in the field of machine learning, which is closely related to computational neuroscience. Li hopes in 10 years (when, impressively, he'll still be eligible for this list) that he'll be conducting research in either of these fields at a top research university.
"I think that machine learning and artificial intelligence hold great promise, from changing the way we interact with one another to expediting and facilitating drug discovery," Li says. "I hope that my research will address fundamental questions, such as how the brain carries out complex computations so efficiently and how we can apply our understanding of brain processes to developing intelligent machines."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here.