Carina Curto, professor of mathematics, has been selected as one of five recipients of the 2020 Faculty Scholar Medals for Outstanding Achievement. Established in 1980, the award recognizes scholarly or creative excellence represented by a single contribution or a series of contributions around a coherent theme. A committee of peers reviews nominations and selects candidates.
Curto, who uses applied math to help explain neural network theory and coding, has made several advances helping us understand how the brain communicates with the outside world. Her work, nominators said, has been internationally recognized for its originality and promise.
“Curto’s research is marked by striking originality,” a nominator said. “She focuses on fundamental questions in neuroscience and uses her mathematical expertise to make profound contributions to the field.”
She used topology to better understand the role of place cells of the hippocampus, which are thought to be the global positioning system of the brain. These place cells fire when an animal is near a familiar location. Curto’s work shows the overlap of the ﬁring patterns of groups of place cells inform the brain of its environment including its topology and a metric that deﬁnes the distance between any pair of places.
Curto has also investigated how neurons encode auditory information. Her work shows how the brain can take massive amounts of data and summarize it using a simple, two-variable model used for single neurons that work in a complex system of neurons. Another key finding is how the brain can switch the way it responds to these neurons, depending on its state.
Curto also unveils the math behind how memories are encoded. She uses a firing-rate model for individual neurons and describes the network as a whole as a nonlinear system of ordinary differential equations for the firing rates as a function of time. When a particular set of neurons fires, the memory is identified. Curto is researching the limits of these systems in their ability to store and recall memory.
“Curto is a superbly original and strongly interdisciplinary mathematical scientist whose work employs mathematics at the highest level to interpret the results of experimental neuroscience,” a nominator said. “The questions she asks are fundamental, and the answers she obtains are profound and important contributions.”
Curto received a Woodrow Wilson Career Enhancement Fellowship for Junior Faculty in 2012 and a Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in 2011. Since 2009, her work has been continuously funded by grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Curto has published more than 25 papers in scientific journals and has presented more than 130 invited talks about her research across North America and Europe. She currently serves as an associate editor for the SIAM Journal on Applied Algebra and Geometry (SIAGA).
Curto joined the faculty at Penn State as an associate professor in 2014 and was promoted to professor in 2019. Previously, Curto was an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 2009 to 2014, a Courant Instructor at New York University from 2008 to 2009, and a postdoctoral associate in the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience at Rutgers University from 2005 to 2008. She earned a doctoral degree in mathematics at Duke University in 2005 and bachelor's degree in physics at Harvard University in 2000.