As a 36-year-old neuroscientist studying how the brain creates experiences, Tye brings this mix of fearlessness and creativity to her lab, where it’s a key ingredient to her success. “Kay always finds this interesting twist,” says Leslie Vosshall, a molecular neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York City. Tye’s group at MIT investigates scientific questions in innovative ways, often with powerful results.
The goal, Tye says, is ambitious: to identify — in neuroscientific terms — the core of what makes us individuals. We all live in the same world, but have vastly different experiences of it. Our private emotions and motivations are crucial for driving our behavior. But just how our inner mental lives are created, she says, is a mystery: “How do we actually ground the mind in the brain?”
So far, Tye’s findings — which come in large part from tweaking nerve cells, and behaviors, in lab animals — have led to a deeper understanding of the intricate neural forces that shape experiences. Many of those forces may operate similarly in people, she believes.
One insight came unexpectedly. After a series of experiments on how certain nerve cells respond to cocaine, the data were in shambles. But Tye and postdoctoral researcher Gillian Matthews didn’t shy from the project. Instead, they ventured into the void, hunting for inventive ways to explain the puzzling results.
It takes my breath away quite frequently to see someone blossom and grow and develop and get stronger and get more capable and more confident.