NYU Tandon is now home to a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow

Doctoral candidate Alexander Ratzan won the prestigious Department of Defense honor for his wide-ranging work with neural data


Alexander Ratzan

When Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Erdem Varol arrived at NYU Tandon in 2023 and established his Neuroinformatics Lab, he explained, “Our goal is to find ways of understanding how the brain is wired. How do neurons fire and communicate? How are they connected?” 

Those were the exact questions that interested Alexander Ratzan. 

Ratzan, whose father is a physician working in public health, had considered pursuing medical school, but he recalibrated during his undergraduate years. In 2021 he earned a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in Cognitive and Brain Science from Tufts University and subsequently accepted a post as a research technician and data analyst at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center.

I had become interested in exploring how our brain's wiring and genetic foundations give rise to our behavior, which includes things like language, learning, and memory. I ultimately decided I would enter a graduate program that would allow me to focus more deeply on those topics from a data science perspective, and in the course of researching schools, I discovered Professor Varol’s work. It seemed like a perfect fit, and it’s especially exciting to be an early member of a cutting-edge, new lab.”

— Alexander Ratzan

Ratzan is now building computational models that will allow for the extraction of useful information from massive datasets compiled via brain scans such as MRIs. “I’m working at the intersection of artificial intelligence and natural intelligence,” he explains. That work is expected to have significant real-world impact since gaining a better understanding of neural data could unlock valuable clues about the causes of conditions like schizophrenia, depression, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's disease — and lead to more effective treatments. 

Ratzan recently received news that he had been selected as a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellow — the first in NYU Tandon’s history. The Fellowship, which is awarded by the U.S. Department of Defense's Office of the Under Secretary for Research and Engineering, is aimed at encouraging exploration in a broad range of disciplines, including Cognitive, Neural, and Behavioral Sciences — a field important to the defense sector because shedding light on the neural mechanisms underpinning cognition and behavior may result in new ways to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, enhance human performance, or improve AI systems. 

“I’m grateful to know that my work has the potential to contribute to our national security, and I’m honored to be the first Tandon student ever to win the NDSEG Fellowship,” he says, “but I’m also excited about the wide-ranging downstream applications. The brain, after all, is the basis for everything we do.” 

“Alex is a student with exceptional potential and a bright future,” Varol says. “He has been a joy to mentor. I’m happy that the NDSEG fellowship recognized the value of his excellent scientific proposal and his potential to make an impact in computational neuroscience. Also, we are very proud of the fact that he’s the first recipient of the NDSEG fellowship at Tandon!”

Watch Alex (and another Ph.D. student from Varol's lab) talk about what got them interested in studying neuroinformatics:


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