Ben Skerritt-Davis receives more than just money from National Institutes of Health grant writing process

April 25, 2019

Ben Skerritt-Davis

Ben Skerritt-Davis, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, learned a lot from applying for a grant from the National Institutes of Health, including how crucial it is to have a mentor that can help you outside the lab.

In December, Skerritt-Davis was notified that the NIH had funded his research project with a two-year grant worth $90,032. He credits that success in part to his advisor, Mounya Elhilali, Charles Renn Faculty Scholar and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who worked with him throughout the process on how to communicate clearly and effectively about his research and its importance. She emphasized tailoring your message to the intended audience—advice he now believes will be invaluable in his career as an engineer and scientist.

“A lot of it is about finding the right language and the right way of explaining your work so it has broad interest and impact,” Skerritt-Davis said. “She reminded me that you never know who will be reviewing your grant proposals, so you cannot assume they have the same expertise as you do.”

According to Skerritt-Davis, his advisor is an excellent storyteller who has taught him and others how to craft their “stories” to their intended audiences.

“She helped me understand that how I present my work to NIH will be different to how I present it in academic papers or for an article,” Skerritt-Davis said. “She’s very thoughtful and strategic in terms of identifying what the message should be, and how to get it across.”

Skerritt-Davis studies auditory perception, specifically how the brain learns relevant information from sound and represents it in memory. He uses stimuli with randomness, simulating the noisy reality of the world, to explore how the brain operates under uncertainty. His research could lead to a plethora of positive developments, including improving diagnostic tools and therapies for sensory processing issues common in people with spectrum disorders, as well as refining the design of hearing aids.

Skerritt-Davis said he was drawn to Johns Hopkins by the opportunity to work alongside Elhilali, who is recognized for advancing the understanding of how the human brain and machines process the complexities of sound.

“My work with Mounya is in sort of a niche field because it combines cognitive neuroscience with engineering and with perception,” Skerritt-Davis said. “Because our research bridges so many fields, it helps to be somewhere with so much relevant research taking place, like the machine learning that happens in ECE, or the hearing sciences on the medical campus, and those resources have been crucial as well. It helps being right in the middle of where all these various factors in our research are.”

The decision to attend Johns Hopkins has paid dividends for Skerritt-Davis, due in part to working with an advisor who is able to mentor him in a variety of ways to ensure he will become a well-rounded engineer.

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