Kenway Louie

October 03, 2023

Official Story

Kenway graduated with undergraduate degrees in chemical engineering and molecular biology from MIT. He entered the MD-PhD program at Harvard Medical School, completing his PhD in biology at MIT using multi-electrode recording techniques to study memory reactivation during sleep. After receiving his MD from Harvard, he completed postdoctoral work with Paul Glimcher at the Center for Neural Science at NYU, studying value coding in animal and human decision circuits. He became a Research Assistant Professor at CNS in 2012, where his work focuses on the neurophysiological, computational, and behavioral aspects of contextual value coding and decision making. He holds a joint appointment at the NYU Langone Neuroscience Institute, where he currently serves as the Computational Core Director for the BRAIN Initiative Oxytocin U19 and Study Director for the ASTOP clinical trial on neural activity changes after interventional treatment for PTSD.

Unofficial Story

Kenway was born in NYC, one of a pair of fraternal twins to parents who had fled China in the 1950s. He grew up as one of the few Asian students in Long Island suburbs, where he and his brother both excelled academically but struggled to socially adjust. This struggle was not entirely helped by skipping several grades along the way, motivated by tiger mom parenting (before the term was coined), parental distrust of public schools, and an immigrant cultural emphasis on academic and professional success. Both Kenway and his brother graduated at 15 years old and enrolled at MIT. Undergraduate life at MIT was a shock in many ways: cool kids were smarter than expected, smart kids were cooler than expected, and students like him and his brother were a dime a dozen. Kenway always imagined being a mathematician or physicist, but freshman physics quickly disabused him of that notion. Saved by freshman pass/fail, he settled on a course of biology and pre-med (to satisfy his medicine-minded mom) and chemical engineering (for his civil engineer dad), but was drawn to scientific research, working his way through research positions in x-ray crystallography (tedious) to cell biology (informative) to cell cycle proteins and oncogenetics (productive). These research experiences - along with a continuing indecisiveness about medicine versus science - led him to applying to MD-PhD programs, where he turned down MSTP funding at other schools to attend Harvard Medical School as an unofficial, unfunded MD-PhD student. Unprepared for the totality of med school, Kenway survived his first two years of classes and returned to MIT for his PhD, switching from molecular biology to systems level neuroscience and the then-nascent technology of multi-electrode recording in awake behaving rodents. Grad school was an awakening of sorts, where he discovered the joys of a variety of pursuits both academic (neural coding, computation, neural networks) and non-academic (travel, motorcycles, rock climbing). Spurred on by the prescient words of a postdoc (“You’ll graduate six months to the day you realize you are DONE with grad school”), he graduated and returned to med school, where he survived clinical rotations largely on people skills hard-earned through lab interactions rather than distant medical knowledge. To his surprise, he gravitated away from his presumed medical disciplines (psychiatry, neurology, neuroradiology) and towards surgical fields like neurosurgery - the urgency and immediate results of operations was a welcome contrast to the drawn out process of scientific research and grad school. This set up an agonizing choice at the end of medical school between neurosurgical residency and postdocs, with academic research winning in the end due to lifestyle, intellectual freedom, and a deep-seated interest in neuroscience. Kenway arrived at NYU in 2004 for a postdoctoral fellowship with Paul Glimcher, driven by a desire to examine neural circuits, cognition, and behavior in the NHP. His most cited work from that time on relative value coding and divisive normalization - which forms the basis of much of the theoretical and behavioral work he currently pursues - was initially viewed by many, including himself, as a simple test-case rotation project for a graduate student. Despite well-cited publications, grant funding, and multiple application cycles, he has yet to secure a tenure-track appointment, leading him to transition into a research faculty position. This kind of position offers both benefits (PI status for grants, mentorship opportunities with graduate students and postdocs, ability to focus on independent lines of work) and costs (lack of job security, ambiguous status in the scientific community, lower pay). Driven by a COVID hiatus, his work has shifted away from experimental neurophysiology to computational and behavioral approaches, which has opened up collaboration opportunities with scientists both within and outside of NYU. He still holds out hope for a transition to a more permanent position, focused on computational approaches to cognition and behavior, but in the meantime enjoys the time that academic research has afforded him with his young family (twins!) in the Northern Westchester suburbs.