FACULTY FEATURE: Shoai Hattori
Boston University has always been home to Dr. Shoai Hattori, a lecturer and the assistant director of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Program. He embarked on his neuroscience journey over 14 years ago as an undergraduate student at BU and returned to his alma mater to teach alongside many of the same professors who mentored him.
Upon asking Dr. Hattori about his childhood home, he pointed out the window, “actually, I can walk home from here!” His home has always been Boston, a melting pot of bright, driven intellects, which he says accounts for part of his early development. He grew up in a very liberal and progressive environment. His mother, the caretaker of five children, held a psychology degree, while his father, an MD-PhD, conducted diabetes research. He attended Brookline High School, which is ranked one of the best high school programs in the nation. Needless to say, academics were a priority in his neighborhood; nevertheless, his ambition was driven primarily by a keen interest in his studies rather than by his environment.
Dr. Hattori graduated from Boston University in 2008 with a degree in Biology. “Neuro didn’t exist when I came here…[but] I really liked biology in high school; I like to know how things work.” Though he had plans to attend medical school when he first arrived, pivotal events in his life led him to pursue research instead. “[Deciding between MD vs. Ph.D.] was a constant debate throughout my college career, I had many conversations with my advisor…the one event that really decided it for me was my grandfather.” His grandfather’s battle with locked-in syndrome came at a time when the field of neuroprosthetics and machinery was rapidly advancing, and he “became really fascinated by it…[it] pushed [him] in the right direction.” His research experience began at the Boston University School of Medicine, where he worked at the pharmacology department looking at gamma receptors and their relation to cocaine addiction. After that, he proceeded to join Dr. Howard Eichenbaum’s Lab, where he got to explore studies on both molecular and systems neuroscience; he stayed there for the remainder of his undergraduate college career.
After graduation, he yearned to do the “brain-machine interface sort of work,” so he applied to schools that could give him that kind of opportunity. He ultimately decided to attend The Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and obtained his Ph.D. in Neuroscience. He worked in a memory lab with Dr. John F. Disterhoft during his years there. One of his most memorable experiences at the institution was co-founding the Northwestern University Brain Awareness Outreach program (NUBAO), a graduate student-led public outreach initiative that focuses on educating and inspiring the Chicago community to learn more about the brain. This program later grew to become a non-profit organization; he shared the story of its development:
“Some Ph.D. programs train you just to do research…my program was very good at encouraging students to explore other areas. One way that my program encouraged that was by giving funding to start up whatever you wanted to. So, I remember having a chat with my colleague, Jessica Wilson, about doing something for Brain Awareness Week…”
Brain Awareness Week (BAW) is a campaign ran by the Dana Foundation that aims to increase awareness about the benefits of brain research. “She was thinking very small scale, but I was like ‘no, let’s go big.’ So I approached the program, pitched the idea, and they said ‘great, yeah, that sounds awesome! Here’s some money!’” Dr. Hattori was given a 500 dollar budget for the event, but with hard work and the help of many fruitful connections, he was able to make the event a great success.
“The first year that we organized an event – with our 500 dollar budget – we had around 60 volunteers, and at least 300 people showed up. We then decided to start our own group. We applied for additional funding and became recognized as an actual group. We actually got a grant of a couple thousand dollars from the University, and we just kept doing events. What started off as a small event is now a non-profit.”
The organization became recognized by the Society for Neuroscience and is now hosting events for its eighth year. His involvement in this organization inspired the idea of BRAIN Day, an annual outreach event held by the Mind and Brain Society at BU. You can learn more about NUBAO at http://www.nubrainawareness.com.
After graduating in 2014, Dr. Hattori considered many possible paths but ultimately decided to come back to Boston University. “I was tired of doing research, but I really enjoyed teaching,” he says, “actually, I was at a conference in San Diego, and Paul [Lipton] was there…We met up and talked about how he had started the neuroscience program at BU and what areas [of the program] needed improvement.” He also claims that he really missed his city and wanted to come back home. He finds fulfillment in being an educator at his alma mater and asserts that students should go into neuroscience because “there is so much you can do with it, plus, the brain is cool!”
Dr. Hattori currently teaches three classes at BU: Neural Control of Movement (NE526), the lab portion of Introduction to Cellular and Molecular Biology (NE102), and the lab portion of Principles of Neuroscience with Lab (NE203). You can find more information about these courses in the Boston University Course Catalog.
Writer: Stephanie Gonzalez
Editor: Enzo Plaitano and Yoana Grigorova