Scholar alum receives national accolades for neuroscience research

September 12, 2014

By hammersmith

Jonathan Pillow is an expert mathematician who is fascinated with how the brain works.

As a Flinn Scholar in the 1990s, Pillow studied math and philosophy at the University of Arizona—and beyond the classroom studied literature in North Africa and became a Pac-10 champion in track and field.

Pillow remembers several math majors among the Scholars who would get together to do homework and would often talk about the philosophy of math. He tossed around the idea of going to graduate school to study philosophy, as he was interested in fundamental questions about consciousness and the mind. Ultimately, he instead chose neuroscience, using his expertise and passion for math and philosophy to study the brain.

And people are taking notice of his work.

The Class of 1993 Flinn Scholar has won several prestigious national honors for young, up-and-coming researchers, and this month is starting a new position as an assistant professor in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University.

Early-Stage Success

In late 2013, Pillow received the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers—the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on outstanding scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers. The award, which was given to 102 recipients, provides five years of research funding. In 2012, he was one of six recipients of the McKnight Scholar Awards from the McKnight Foundation, which encourages neuroscientists in the early stages of their careers to focus on disorders of learning and memory. That award provides $75,000 a year in research funding for three years.

And in 2011, he was awarded the two-year, $50,000 Sloan Research Fellowship, which is given annually by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to 126 researchers in recognition of distinguished performance and a unique potential to make substantial contributions to their field.

Pillow says he wants to understand how healthy brains make decisions, with a goal of uncovering opportunities to cure disease.

“If we understand how decision-making is compromised, it will help us develop treatments for people with brain deficits,” Pillow says.

At Princeton, Pillow will work on mathematical models of how the brain works and how neurons work together. Potential applications from this work could include developing treatments for people with brain deficits, or curing blindness or other sensory disorders.

“Neurons send messages, and my lab is trying to understand that code,” says Pillow.

Pillow will begin his research at Princeton this month and start teaching in January. He will be part of a growing group in computational neuroscience at Princeton.

“It’s a great professional opportunity with amazing resources and will be an exciting professional challenge,” he says.

Pillow had been an assistant professor at the University of Texas in Austin since 2009. Previously, he spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Gatsby Computational Neuroscience Unit at University College London. He earned his Ph.D. in 2005 from New York University’s Center for Neural Science. Pillow says he arrived with little information about biology or genetics after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Arizona in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and philosophy.

The Flinn Years

Pillow grew up in Phoenix and graduated from Horizon High School. When he began to learn about the Flinn Scholarship, Pillow admits he was not initially thrilled.

“I was excited about going out of state and I wanted to go to Princeton,” says Pillow, who now 21 years later has found his way to his one-time leading undergraduate choice.

But Pillow said once he learned more about the scholarship, and what was offered with the mentorship and travel opportunities, he was extremely excited.

“(The Flinn Scholarship) has all the advantages—there is a small community of Flinn Scholars, an opportunity for enrichment and travel, and things you wouldn’t otherwise be able to do,” Pillow says.

After graduating from UA, Pillow used a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship to study Francophone literature of North Africa in Morocco, a location he chose because of a previous Flinn-sponsored trip to the country.

As a Flinn Scholar, Pillow also spent a semester abroad in Budapest, Hungary, where he studied math, taught by Hungarian faculty.

Pillow says he’s stayed in touch with other Flinn Scholars, and a handful of them are still his closest friends from his undergraduate years.

“Some of the most brilliant and stimulating people I ever met were the friends I made in the Flinn Scholars Program,” Pillow says.

Outside the classroom, Pillow was captain of the UA cross country team and a member of the Wildcat track and field team. His senior year, he was the Pac-10 champion in the steeplechase event, a 3,000-meter race where competitors clear hurdles and water on a track.

In 1997, he was named the Outstanding Senior in the Department of Mathematics. He was also awarded both the Freeman Medal—for outstanding UA graduate—as well as the Sapphire Award for outstanding UA student-athlete.

And the accolades for Jonathan Pillow have never let up.