In January, when the Charles River began to freeze, Keith Murray and other members of MIT’s male crew raced in an indoor boat. For 80 minutes at a time, Murray did one of the toughest workouts in college. To distract himself from suffering, he talked to his teammates, from great philosophical ideas to personal coffee desires.
For Murray, virtually any communication is an opportunity to study how people think and why they think in certain ways. Murray, who currently has a double degree in mathematics and cognition, linguistics and philosophy, seeks to understand the human experience based on the knowledge gained from all of these fields.
“I’m trying to mix different methods to understand the complexity of human cognition,” he says. “For example, from a physiological point of view, the brain is made up of billions of neurons at the same time, but this does not scratch the surface of cognition.”
Murray grew up in Corridor, Indiana, where he attended the Indiana Academy of Sciences, Mathematics, and the Humanities during his junior high school years. There he became acquainted with philosophy and the ideas of Plato, Socrates, and Thomas Aquinas. While looking at colleges, Murray became interested in MIT because he wanted to know different perspectives on human thought processes. “When I came to MIT, I knew I wanted to do something philosophical. But I also wanted to be technical, ”he said.
On campus, Murray was immediately available through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) at the Digital Humanities Laboratory. There he worked with language processing technology to analyze gender language in various novels, the ultimate goal being to present data to an online audience. He became acquainted with the basic mathematical models used to analyze and present information online to study the social consequences of linguistic phrases and expressions.
Murray also joined the Concourse Learning Community, which brings together diverse perspectives on the humanities, natural sciences and mathematics in a weekly workshop. “I came across some very good examples of how to do interdisciplinary work,” he recalls.
In the summer before his sophomore year, Murray worked as a researcher at Harnett’s lab, where he worked with mice instead of working with novels. Together with postdoctoral Lucas Fischer, Murray trained mice to perform navigation tasks using virtual reality equipment. His goal was to study neural coding in navigation and to understand why mice behave after displaying certain stimuli on screens. After spending time in the laboratory, Murray became more interested in neurology and the biological components behind human thought processes.
He searched for other research experiences related to neurobiology and led him to study the SuperUROP project at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Working under Professor Nancy Lynch, he developed theoretical models of the retina using machine learning. Murray was thrilled to use the techniques he learned at 9.40 (Introduction to Neural Computations) to solve complex neurological problems. Murray considers this to be one of his most complex research experiences because the experience was entirely online.
“It happened during the pandemic, so I had a lot to learn on my own; I was not able to do accurate research in the laboratory. It was a big challenge, but in the end I learned a lot and as a result I got a publication, ”he said.
Last semester, Murray McGovern built in-depth study models of animals performing navigation tasks in Professor Ila Fiet’s lab at the Institute of Brain Research. Based on the latest draft of Phyte Class 9.49 (Neural Schemes for Cognition), Murray is working on the introduction of current theoretical models of the hippocampus to study the intersection of artificial intelligence and neurology through this UROP.
Reflecting on his various research experiences, Murray says that they showed him new ways to study the human brain from several perspectives, which he found useful when trying to understand the complexities of human behavior.
In addition to his academic pursuits, Murray continued to struggle with his freshman crew. He sees rowing as a way to increase his physical and mental strength. “When I do my class assignment or think about projects, I use the mental rigidity I develop while swimming in a boat,” she says. “This is what I learned at MIT to develop your commitment to something. Whether you use it for physical exercises, such as rowing, or for scientific projects, everything is equally mentally harsh.
In the future, Murray hopes to earn a PhD in neurology, looking for ways to incorporate his love of philosophy and human thinking into his cognitive research. “I think there’s a lot more to neurology, especially with artificial intelligence. There are a lot of new technological developments going on now, ”he said.