As a Principal Scientist at Charles River Analytics, Bethany leads a team of researchers and engineers who specialize in neurophysiological sensing methods that assess human states and predict performance deficits. Although she didn’t follow a brain-based approach at first, she was always interested in exploring the human experience, choosing to major in Psychology at Clarion University of Pennsylvania.
While there, she picked up Descartes’ Error by Antonio Damasio, which retells the story of Phineas Gage, a nineteenth century railway foreman whose personality changed after an iron rod was driven through his frontal lobe.
“Gage’s incident indicated to me that personality, the essence of who we are, originates in the brain,” Bethany explains.
Gage’s story inspired Bethany to dive deeper into neuroscience; she went on to pursue a Ph.D. in the field from Brandeis University. Her first year there consisted of lab rotations that gave her a well-rounded view of the subject. After an accident resulting in a broken collarbone, she chose to focus on molecular work for her dissertation—since her injury prevented her from using the electrophysiology equipment used to record neurons.
Although different than her psychology background, this specialization in molecular biology, combined with her experience in neurophysiology, meant she could take the lead on a variety of initiatives at Charles River after getting hired in 2012.
For NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, for example, Bethany’s team is developing CESSATION, a system that delivers behavioral therapies in VR to help patients quit smoking by tackling nicotine dependency and mitigating relapse. CESSATION is intended to become commercially available as an affordable app that gives smokers unparalleled access to cessation therapy.
Under a U.S. Army project, Bethany teamed up with the biomedical engineering company, Plux, to develop the fNIRS Explorer. This miniaturized, portable fNIRS sensor can wirelessly track cognitive state by measuring visible and infrared light reflectance in cortical tissue.
Bethany also worked with NASA to develop CAPT PICARD, a system that uses fNIRS sensors to assess astronaut workload and performance when NASA is testing new systems. Measurements from CAPT PICARD were used to determine how to best display system status on the Orion space vehicle.
But space is not the final frontier for Bethany—this year, she is leading a team of 7 partner organizations, spanning 3 continents and 14 time zones, on a 5-year, $16M contract for DARPA’s Personalized Protective Biosystem program. Bethany is bringing her experience working with DARPA and leveraging her molecular biology experience from graduate school to guide the team as they explore the use of transgenic commensal organisms to target chemical and biological threats, such as anthrax, Ebola, even COVID-19. She is excited for the program’s potential to protect against infectious disease, or even prevent future pandemics.
Bethany’s hobbies are suitable for someone who leads projects focused on exploring the potential—and pushing the limits—of humankind. While recovering from a broken foot, she picked up crocheting and binge-watched all the Marvel movies, designing and stitching superhero-inspired blankets. She now sells these creations on her Etsy page.
She is also an avid adventurer, having visited 37 countries, including Cuba, Jordan, Italy—even exploring Antarctica. Her goal is to visit 50 countries by the time she turns 50.
Although Bethany’s injuries may have caused some bumps on the road, she’s used them to prove that she’s an unstoppable force. She reflects, “Without that broken collarbone in grad school, I wouldn’t have had the experience to run the efforts I do today.”