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Applying statistics to neuroscience

João Ricardo Sato uses mathematical, statistical and computational tools to study brain function

Carreiras_DSC03785_P&BPersonal archives Statistician and neuroscientist João Ricardo Sato, 34, has been fond of science (mainly physics, biology and computing) since he was a child.  He came to enjoy the exact sciences naturally because his mother is a professor in the Department of Computer Engineering and Digital Systems at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (Poli/USP). His aptitude for science surfaced when he was in high school, and as a result he took the university entrance exam to pursue a bachelor’s degree program in statistics at the Institute of Mathematics and Statistics (IME) at USP. His choice was motivated by his desire to work in the financial market. “From the very beginning of my undergraduate studies I focused on this field and I looked for a time series specialist: Professor Pedro Alberto Morettin,” he says. Time series involve the study of observations made sequentially over time with applications in many sectors. “I enjoyed the subject area so much that I established three undergraduate projects in it, and my internship was in the financial market.” After completing his studies at the university in 2002, he worked in the field of investments and securities, and that is when he began working on his master’s degree at the IME.

It was at that time that he met Daniel Takahashi, a physician who had already graduated and was working on a second undergraduate degree, in mathematics. “In our conversations over coffee, he showed me that time series and statistical methods could be applied to medicine, and not just to epidemiology, but to neurosciences as well, to better understand the brain,” he explains. “I decided that was what I wanted to do: apply and develop quantitative methods to better understand how the brain works through interdisciplinary research,” Sato says. He began pursuing his doctorate in 2004 with a project to develop statistical methods and neuroimaging to answer questions about brain connectivity. In 2006 he did a sandwich doctorate at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College in London, in machine learning. In 2009 he passed a competitive exam for the Center of Mathematics Computing and Cognition of the Federal University of the ABC (UFABC). “I was hired along with five other professors, and that was the beginning of the activities of the Center of Cognition and Complex Systems, which was under the Office of the Dean,” Sato says. “The group currently has 30 associate professors and was the incubator for the first bachelor’s degree in neuroscience in Brazil, as well as the graduate program in neuroscience and cognition at the university.” From 2009 to 2014, Sato coordinated the team at this center, which today houses the neurosciences laboratory infrastructure and promotes research as well as teaching and extension activities in the field. Currently, his research focuses on the study of neurodevelopment, aging and neural bases of mental disorders.