The graininess of a film camera may seem old-fashioned in today’s world. With the digital 4k resolution cameras we have now, why would someone continue to use this much more outdated version? Wouldn’t they want to modernize and take much clearer photos? Dr. Jen-Wei — one of Boston University’s most innovative neurophysiologists — will turn down the digital cameras, as he prefers the originality and freedom of the film camera.
From Taiwan, Dr. Lin’s journey to BU is quite an amazing story. At National Taiwan University, Dr. Lin earned his Bachelor’s degree in Zoology in 1978. After this, Lin served in the Taiwan military service for three years. Following his service, he made the journey to SUNY – Buffalo, where he would complete his Ph.D. in physiology.
“At the time,” Lin said, “Neuroscience was mainly neurophysiology and neuroanatomy. When I began [my studies] in neurophysiology, I burned quite a few things,” Lin chuckles. This was fascinating for Lin as he describes the minute details of studying the traces of neurological processes and channels. Dr. Lin explains that neurophysiology allowed him to make the connections between these processes, which was much more interesting to him than other biological phenomena.
Dr. Lin first entered research in a lab studying a three synapse reflex in goldfish. Specifically, Lin focused on the synaptic transmissions among the multi-neurons along the spine.
“This was very interesting because this was one of the cells in the central nervous system that had multiple synapses,” Lin described. Very uniquely, Lin points out the inhibitory synapses that occur within these cells.
Dr. Lin then transitioned to New York University where he would complete his Ph.D. fellowship at the medical center. Here, Lin studied the giant synapse of both crabs and squids. Lin focused specifically on the depolarization of the neuron of the crab when its muscle would extend or contract for the majority of the year, but waited until summer when “squid season” would begin to work on his squid experiments.
It was after this when Dr. Lin then came to Boston University to begin as a professor. Currently, Dr. Lin teaches BI445: Cellular and Molecular Neurophysiology. This course focuses on the cellular and molecular basis of neural excitability and synaptic transmission. In the course, students work to extrapolate molecular understandings of ion channels to higher brain functions including learning, memory, and sleep. In the course, he incorporates these ideas into studying crayfish to understand the effects of pesticides and antiepileptic drugs.
For Dr. Lin, getting involved in research means being proactive.
“Talk to different professors and other students about what they’re doing. Figure out what you’re interested in, and ask yourself, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’” He advises. Lin says that having “thick skin” is advantageous, as it’s important to “not get lost in the little things you do.” However, Lin explains, that reaching out and making yourself accessible to others is the way to find what you’re passionate about. To put it in his own words, “listen by not being overwhelmed by noise.”
All of this is easy to do at Boston University. Lin calls Boston “a great city,” attracting a large herd of amazing people. Lin suggests taking full advantage of the city, integrating yourself within the communities of not only BU but also the other universities and institutions that surround the city. To become more acquainted with the city, you may follow Dr. Lin’s suggestion and go for runs throughout Boston and Cambridge. Exploring the city and becoming more familiar with what is around you opens you up to Boston’s full potential.
In my conversations with Dr. Lin, his appreciation for the vastness of life was incredibly evident. It was fascinating to hear from this man who works with the most innovative neurophysiology techniques and the most cutting-edge microscopes, but also prefers the use of a grainy film camera in capturing photos of his life. But why?
“Like an artist choosing color between oil or pastel in their paintings, the film camera produces this unique visual of grains,” Lin explains. Lin describes the use of a film camera as “a choice,” that — like neurophysiology — gives him the freedom to put things together himself.
This form of art, both in his photos and his research, possesses an individuality that can be only Dr. Lin’s: a truly fascinating man.
Writer: Trey Moore
Editor: Stephanie Gonzalez
While juggling the various responsibilities of college life, many undergraduates dream of a well-defined career path with straightforward steps to a successful life. However, life is always full of uncertainties, and that seemingly direct path may quickly reveal itself as a winding road. Dr. Stern is no stranger to this unexpected occurrence, but he prefers to embrace the serendipity of it:
“A winding path is a bit more of an adventure-- it’s also a little more fun.”
Dr. Stern’s own path has taken him through numerous academic institutions and places of employment up and down the East Coast. His journey has presently brought him back to Boston as a prominent professor and researcher at the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM). Dr. Stern is one of the most influential research scientists in the field of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease which plagues the brains of many NFL players today, as well as others with a history of repetitive blows to the head.
Growing up, Dr. Stern had wanted to be either a physician or a Broadway star. While applying to colleges, he searched for a school where he could potentially pursue both of his dreams. Ultimately, he decided on Wesleyan University. Though he settled for a major in biology and was determined to become a surgeon, a presentation by noted Harvard physician Dr. Herbert Benson – one of the pioneers of the Mind/Brain movement -- swayed Dr. Stern to the brain sciences.
After changing his major to Psychology and planning to conduct his senior thesis on loneliness and heart disease, he had to shift gears because his mentor suddenly left the school. He then found another advisor, but changed the focus of his thesis to loneliness and its relationship to depression. During this time, he noticed a general lack of mental health support for the student population at Wesleyan. Inspired, he co-founded and directed a college peer counseling hotline he named ‘8-to-8’. The project was one of the first of its kind in the country (and is still in existence almost 40 years later), and played a role in Dr. Stern’s desire to work more closely with people.
While Dr. Stern helped others make the connections they needed, he himself ended up reconnecting with a former high school classmate, Ruthanne. Out of the blue, she contacted him seeking advice on her possible transfer to Wesleyan. Through a long phone call and a meeting over drinks, he convinced her to join him in Connecticut. Their discussions unknowingly signified the start of their romance as Ruthanne and Dr. Stern would eventually marry.
Following graduation from Wesleyan, Dr. Stern helped develop a similar peer counseling program at Andover High School for two years. And, during that time, he decided to dive into the emerging field of behavioral medicine. He was admitted to the Clinical Psychology doctoral program at the University of Rhode Island (URI) where he completed his master’s thesis in 1984 the progressive stages of cigarette smoking acquisition in adolescents. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the experience he had hoped for.
“I hated every second of it,” Dr. Stern laughs.
Feeling like he had gone down the wrong path, Dr. Stern decided to shift directions and join a practicum training program at a psychiatric hospital. The program was Dr. Stern’s first exposure to the field of neuropsychology. He enjoyed the experience so much that he decided to apply for a pre-doctoral internship at the Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Boston. This highly competitive position was overseen by the late Dr. Edith Kaplan, a pioneer in clinical neuropsychology. Fortunately for Dr. Stern, he had connected with Dr. Kaplan previously while taking her classes at BUSM -- some of which he teaches today.
After securing the internship, Dr. Stern went on to grind out many 100-hour work weeks the following year. He then stayed on at the VA completing his dissertation research on depressive symptoms following stroke. The technology available at the time (CT scans were relatively new and MRI scans were not yet developed) restricted stroke localization to somewhat crude brain regions. But, even the ability to quantify moods like sadness in aphasic stroke patients lacking. In response, Dr. Stern developed the Visual Analog Mood Scale (VAMS).
“If it doesn’t exist, create it,” Dr. Stern said. “What started out as silly little drawings of a happy face and a sad face eventually turned into commercially published, standardized visual analog mood scales.”
As Dr. Stern was finishing his Ph.D., Ruthanne matched for her ophthalmology residency at Duke University. Dr. Stern managed to follow her southwards, moving to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship in neuropsychology and psychoneuroendocrinology from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. Conveniently for them, the two universities sit only twenty minutes away (though during basketball season, the rivalry made the distance feel much further), and they eagerly took on their new positions. Dr. Stern was publishing and writing grants and getting grants and developing new areas of expertise. Chaos quickly overcame this eagerness when responsibilities piled on. Among the new responsibilities came parenthood, as Ruthanne gave birth to their two children -- a boy and a girl – one during residency and the other before fellowship training. Dr. Stern and Ruthanne moved closer to Boston when their youngest was one, and Dr. Stern found a new position at Brown Medical School.
A couple years after settling into their new home, Dr. Stern and his family were struck with somber news. Ruthanne had developed breast cancer. After a year of treatments, their lives returned to normal. Dr. Stern received several grants on topics ranging thyroid-brain relationships to HIV-associated brain disorders. He directed a memory clinic and a training program, and spent over 7 years developing a new, extensive neuropsychological test battery. However, after five years of health, Ruthanne had a recurrence of the cancer. A year and a half later, she passed away at the age of 43. Dr. Stern’s once-wonderful experience at Brown became dull in this troubling time. Funding was drying out, major collaborators were leaving or no longer available, and Dr. Stern was left a single parent with a long drive from Needham, a suburb of Boston, to Providence, Rhode Island. Yet while life was far from perfect, Dr. Stern’s children were healthy, happy, and wonderful and that was the most important thing.
Dr. Stern never believed he would encounter love again, but as his past shows, life constantly presented him with the unexpected. So it was without fanfare that a neighbor introduced him to a lovely woman named Susan. Although he had no intentions of pursuing her, their conversations revealed that they shared remarkably similar life experiences. Like Dr. Stern, Susan was a widow by cancer, and also the single parent of a boy and girl. Dr. Stern and Susan were able to develop a unique bond and mutual understanding of each other quickly fell in love. This beginning of a new chapter in Dr. Stern’s life allowed him to re-evaluate what brought him joy. Yet while Susan changed his life for the better, Dr. Stern’s disdain for his work in Rhode Island remained.
On a particularly bad day, Dr. Stern received a call from an old friend, Dr. Robert Green, asking if he would be interested in coming to work at Boston University School of Medicine. Dr. Stern jumped at the opportunity and was soon working with Dr. Green, running the Clinical Core of the NIH-funded BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center (BU ADC).
After giving a talk in Boston about Alzheimer’s disease one evening in 2007, Dr. Stern was introduced to former Harvard football player and WWE professional wrestler, Christopher Nowinski (now Dr. Nowinski), and jokingly explains that the two “kind of fell in love.”
At the time, although Dr. Stern had seen a couple of patients with dementia pugilistica (“punch-drunk” syndrome), he had not heard of the term CTE,. Dr. Nowinski had just formed the non-profit, Sports Legacy Institute (SLI, now Concussion Legacy Foundation) with world-renown concussion specialist and neurosurgeon, Dr. Robert Cantu. They were looking for a research institution to partner with and, as Dr. Stern was intrigued by what the study of CTE could do for advancing knowledge about other neurodegenerative diseases and the potential impact on public health, they continued discussion about some form of affiliation. When Drs. Nowinski and Cantu asked if Dr. Stern knew of a neuropathologist who may be interested in studying the brains of deceased football players, Dr. Stern replied that he worked with a superb and highly respected neuropathologist at the BU ADC but he wasn’t sure if she would have that interest. Little did he know that, at the time, Dr. Ann McKee was a huge football fan and was also an expert in diseases involving tau protein, the same protein at the root of CTE. Dr. Stern called Dr. McKee and asked if she was interested. Dr. McKee was eager to join, and in the following months, Drs. Cantu, McKee, Nowinski, and Stern, with the support of Dean Karen Antman and others at the MED campus, founded the BU Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, through a formal affiliation between SLI and BU. As they say, the rest is history, with Drs. Stern and McKee becoming pioneers in the field of CTE research, increasing public awareness and forging major medical and scientific advances.
Dr. Stern is the lead principal investigator of a $16 million multi-center NIH grant (that was supposed to be funded originally by the NFL, but he doesn’t like to talk about that), has many other ongoing projects, is the director of clinical research for the BU ADC and BU CTE Center, has published hundreds articles, as well as two recent books . He particularly enjoys the dynamic nature of the Neurology Department at BUSM. Following his own advice, Dr. Stern has surrounded himself with nice people who make up his passionate, brilliant, and hard-working research team.
They are all “wicked smaht people,” Dr. Stern says jokingly in a fake Bostonian accent.
The approximately 15-member team works with Dr. Stern to conduct clinical research projects on AD and CTE within the department.
Although getting a grant funded or having a major paper accepted for publication is exciting, “if someone is really going to be a successful researcher, they have to enjoy the journey all along the way,” says Dr. Stern.
He explains that research is all about trying to answer a question -- and when the analysis comes back and supports the initial hypothesis, it is thrilling.
“When a paper gets published, even now, so many years into my career, I still get a little rush getting to see the paper with my name on it,” he adds.
Yet while he enjoys publishing his work, Dr. Stern does not forget to note the real drive behind his projects: “The most important part of it all are the people who I get to interact, the research participants, patients, and their loved ones. That also is what keeps me driving.”
Reflecting on his experiences, Dr. Stern urges current students to be open to new ideas and strive to create change in the world.
“If something is broken, fix it. And if there is a need for something and it doesn’t exist, make it,” said Dr. Stern. “Whenever I meet with anyone who has a can-do spirit, someone who says, ‘yeah, let’s do that,’ that is the most powerful type of person that I want to be around.”
For students pursuing research experience, Dr. Stern recommends reaching out to a lab and offering to help with anything.
“It really just starts with saying, ‘Hey, I’ll do anything,’ that’s really it,” he said. “If you can open the door by offering to do anything and then you prove yourself by being a nice person, a smart person, a hard-working person, then usually that turns into being able to move forward within a lab and to be offered more and more responsibilities,” said Dr. Stern.
Dr. Stern advises students to take time off after their undergraduate studies before applying to graduate or medical school.
“College is an amazing time and possibly not the time to make a final decision about what you want to do for the rest of your life,” said Dr. Stern.
He recommends spending at least two years in this capacity, permitting time to mature and gain valuable experience. He says it is really important to follow your gut and not feel stuck in one direction or another, while always doing something that excites you. His twists of fate enabled him to find his true passions and dedicate such a large part of his life to scientific innovation. Dr. Stern’s intricate career path exemplifies the advice he gives to current students:
“Realize that nothing is ever a finite decision.”
Despite his prominent role in academia, Dr. Stern puts in the effort to maintain a balance between his personal life and professional career.
“Make sure every day is filled with joy,” said Dr. Stern.
His own primary source of joy comes from spending time with his wife and four kids, along with their little cockapoo, Rosie. Boston also supplies Dr. Stern with positive energy: he relishes the diverse atmosphere, and as a self-proclaimed avid spinner, he cherishes the abundance of spin classes available. As for what the future holds, Dr. Stern looks forward to passing along his projects to his talented junior faculty and hopefully witnessing their developments lead to advances in neuroscience and to the benefit of public health.
Writers: Yoana Grigorova, Enzo Plaitano, Nicole Tacugue
Editors: Stephanie Gonzalez, Brian Privett
Dr. David Somers was in Kathmandu, Nepal, just about to head off for an expedition as part of his world travels, when he received an unanticipated phone call. Several professors had tracked him down in order recruit him to work on a project in the new Cognitive and Neural Systems Program at BU.
It’s no wonder that BU faculty went through the trouble to find Dr. Somers, as he can be best described as a modern Renaissance man. When he is not teaching Cognitive Psychology or conducting robust research, Dr. Somers enjoys travelling, craft beer, and ultimate frisbee. Although he has several seemingly distinct passions and hobbies, they somehow intersect and visibly manifest in his career.
During his early educational endeavors, Somers states that there was no designated undergraduate path in neuroscience. Therefore, he pursued a degree as a math major and a psychology minor at Harvey Mudd College with the hopes of studying artificial intelligence in the future. Although Dr. Somers has an affinity for mathematics and computer science, he reoriented his focus towards neuroscience. “Physical sciences have become so hypothetical and estranged, but I was drawn to neuroscience because it is so important, huge, fascinating, and attainable,” he states. More specifically, Dr. Somers is particularly interested in how neuroscience is evolving with the rise of new technologies, and cites the importance of “learning the new methodologies and applying it to older philosophical questions regarding the mind.”
Following his undergraduate tenure, Dr. Somers moved on to a fellowship at MIT’s Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences. There, he worked in a lab that specialized in rewiring neural circuitries in ferrets in order to restore sight. However, as a ethical vegetarian, he faced a moral quandary in utilizing animal models. He was then drawn to computational neuroscience to evade invasive animal work and transcend the limitations of animal models.
Around the same time, just one year before his doctoral dissertation, Dr. Somers witnessed the development of the fMRI machine and its nascent implementation in neuropsychological research. In alignment with his personal philosophy on keeping up with emerging technologies, Dr. Somers “went to grad school again to prepare, where [his] math background luckily transferred quite nicely.” When asked about the most surprising change he has observed in the field, Dr. Somers reflected upon the example of optogenetics, and likened its research atmosphere to that of the field upon the introduction of fMRI machines. He also reiterated the immense influence of technology on the constantly changing nature of neuroscience. “Keep learning new techniques--you may be doing your work in a field or methodology which doesn’t exist yet,” he states.
Currently, the excitement surrounding multimodal integration research inspires Dr. Somers, as hid lab specializes in investigating multisensory attention networks and visual science. He is interested in a multimodal approach in his laboratory, and seeks to explore how integration varies according to different types of stimuli. In his lab, he uses fMRI techniques to study the relationship between vision and attention, perception, and working memory. Dr. Somers also developed a five-finger glove for delivering tactile stimuli to further study sensory modalities.
As he reflects his exciting life as a BU faculty member, Dr. Somers is glad he received that coincidental phone call in Nepal. Even though he spends a lot of time shoveling snow, he still emphasizes his admiration for Boston. “My colleagues are hardworking and interesting people, and I enjoy my interactions with the students. They seem to be getting smarter and smarter, and increasingly passionate, which makes teaching here so fulfilling.” For students interested in pursuing research, Dr. Somers offers two pieces of advice: “Find a question which you really love and care deeply about. Then learn the new methods and get after it.”
Writer: Safia Mirza
Editor: Brian Privett
Any view from one of the offices near the top of the Kilachand Center for Life Sciences and Engineering building will leave you speechless. One particular office, with a baseball nestled amidst countless awards scattered about the desk, a bottle of celebratory champagne waiting to be popped open, and a giant inflated T-rex standing beside a whiteboard scribbled with complex calculations, tends to stand out from the crowd. This is the office of Dr. Steve Ramirez.
Dr. Ramirez is what you would call a “true Bostonian.” Growing up in Everett, MA, Ramirez decided to stay around the area by attending Boston University for his undergraduate career. However, he found a lot of trouble in deciding what he wanted to major in.
“I enjoyed everything,” Ramirez explained, “From physics to biochemistry to literature.” It wasn’t until he had a conversation with a familiar face of the BU community when he decided neuroscience was his fit. A conversation with Paul Lipton, BU’s current undergraduate neuroscience director, eventually persuaded Ramirez to study the organ that had created everything he had a passion for, joining BU’s first graduating class of neuroscience majors.
After BU, Ramirez made the long journey across the Charles River to pursue his PhD at MIT. Here, Ramirez describes as “the best five years of my life.” Along with playing Mario Kart with his roommates whom he refers to his closest friends, Ramirez credits MIT with where he first got the inspiration in researching the interactions with memories.
Ramirez continues this research with his next long venture to Harvard University, where he completed his fellowship, serving as the “launchpad” of his own lab. Ramirez’s current research focuses on depression, anxiety, and PTSD, in which he is questioning whether it is possible to turn on positive memories - or turn off negative memories - to curing these diseases. This is done by tracking brain cells that respond to certain signals of light and then reactivating the cells to reproduce (or halt) the previous emotion, otherwise known as optogenetics.
At BU, Ramirez is the instructor for NE 337, Memory Systems of the Brain. This course works to study to neurobiological mechanisms of memory. By studying amnesia in humans and experimental models of amnesia in animals, the course is engineered to focus on evidence for multiple forms of memory and the distinct brain systems that mediate them.
The classes taught by Dr. Ramirez aren’t like your typical STEM courses. Ramirez makes it a priority to relate neuroscience to modern types of multimedia, basing his teaching methods off of a course he taught at Tufts called Neuroscience and Hollywood. It’s not uncommon for a homework assignment from Ramirez is to watch the Bourne Trilogy or Inside Out.
“A lot of stuff is wrong, but there are certain concepts they actually get right,” Ramirez explains. “The material has to be grounded in ‘why do I care?’” Ramirez answers as to why he assigns these films. “Of course there are also TED Talks and research articles, but I include these movies because they’re what I like to watch for fun.”
When asked how Ramirez likes working at BU, it was very evident the impact the community makes on him.
“At BU, the learning and memory community really are here to help in any way possible,” he begins, “Unlike other universities, research teams are not their own separate islands here.” Another important aspect Ramirez highlights is that “everybody actually has a real life and can enjoy life outside of the lab,” demonstrated through the Macaroni Mondays and Taco Tuesdays he partakes in with his peers.
For an undergraduate interested in getting involved in research, Ramirez suggests to reach out to professors and see if they could entertain having you in their lab.
“Not all research is going to interest you, but getting involved will help to determine what you are interested in.” Ramirez assures that it’s okay to not know exactly what you want to do with your neuroscience degree after BU. “Neuroscience is constantly changing, and with that, so are the opportunities. So the job you might have 10 years from now might not even exist today.”
This type of encouragement stems from the overwhelming adoration Dr. Ramirez feels for his parents, whom he continues to call twice everyday. “I owe them my life,” he explains, “Coming into the country illegally to give me a fighting chance at an education.” This sense of altruism is conveyed through his interactions with his students. “I want to see them fight through the tough questions science has to offer and succeed, and I genuinely think they will.” Ramirez credits his father with his sense of continued optimism.
“There’s a million different reasons to be angry in 2019, but there’s a couple worth celebrating,” Ramirez explains.
You are one of the few, Dr. Ramirez. Thank you.
Writer: Trey Moore
Editor: Emme Enojado
While walking through the Laboratory of Behavioral Neuroscience, one cannot help but stare at the equipment and visualize the many restless nights dedicated to countless experiments. Maybe it’s the abundance of hanging lab coats or the many apparatuses waiting to be used, but the lab brims with an addictive dose of excitement and ambition. This energy sources from the persistent and determined Dr. Kathleen Kantak, the fearless leader of this captivating space.
Dr. Kantak’s countless publications and long line of accolades provokes intimidation. However, the hesitation to make her acquaintance dissipates as her whimsical personality surfaces. Her office -- a small space reminiscent of a snug personal library -- is thought provoking and engaging. She unveils her story naturally, and the space seems warmer.
For Dr. Kantak, it started with a cranial fish dissection during her freshman year of high school.
“I was so enthralled by what I was seeing that I didn’t even notice I had also cut myself,” she said.
The experience of seeing a brain for the first time inspired her to pursue neural studies, and though she never imagined going into medicine or conducting clinical trials, she wanted to make a worthy contribution to society. Thus, after earning a degree from Potsdam State University, Dr. Kantak completed a Ph.D. in Biopsychology at Syracuse University, where she focused on neural control in consummatory behavior through animal models. Her post-doctoral studies -- at The University of Wisconsin (Madison) and Tufts University, respectively -- focused on studying aggression from the behavioral physiologist and pharmacological perspectives.
Dr. Kantak began working as an Assistant Professor at Boston University in 1982, the same year that she founded the Laboratory for Behavioral Neuroscience. Building a lab from scratch was no easy feat: grants were limited to very few researchers and the Neuroscience program was yet to be created.
“There was no neuroscience when I started… the entire department has grown tremendously over time, it has been fascinating to watch” she said.
Her work, however, proved relevant to the times. During the late 1980s, cocaine abuse emerged as a serious concern to the medical and public health worlds. This inspired Dr. Kantak to investigate the various aspects of this particular drug addiction.
Since there is no substantial treatment or FDA approved drug for cocaine dependence, Dr. Kantak’s efforts have been relentless. She has investigated both the pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic ways that cocaine works in the body, as well as potential drugs for therapeutic use of addiction.
Although the majority of the research she has conducted involves cocaine, Dr. Kantak has also pursued studies on animal models of ADHD. Unsurprisingly, she ended up connecting the ADHD research to cocaine as a way to study comorbidity.
“I guess I just have a high affinity for cocaine research,” she said with a smile and a laugh.
Additionally, Dr. Kantak investigates polysubstance abuse, analyzing the relationship between heroin and cocaine addictions. In her lab, she has enlisted the help of other renowned researchers originating from an array of specialties such as molecular biology, neurochemistry, and clinical research. Although her work is based on animal models of addiction, she works closely with clinical researchers and physicians to move her work one step closer to human subjects.
Today, the tenured Dr. Kantak is not only the director of the Laboratory for Behavioral Neuroscience, but she also holds an appointment as a Lecturer at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Psychiatry (Psychobiology) as well as at the Division of Behavioral Biology at the New England Primate Research Center.
At BU, Dr. Kantak currently teaches NE/PS333: Drugs and Behavior, one of the elective courses for undergraduate neuroscience majors. Her course focuses on understanding the action of drugs on the brain in order to understand how these drugs influence behavior.
Writer: Heidi Santa Cruz
Editor: Emme Enojado and Stephanie Gonzalez
Stepping onto Commonwealth Avenue the Wednesday morning after the Red Sox won the World Series was a thrill. Barricades were already set up along the streets, fans were lining up in their jerseys, and kids were jumping at the bit to see their heroes parade before their eyes through the city streets. And yet, it was a conversation at 677 Beacon St. with Dr. Arash Yazdanbakhsh that radiated much more passion than any trophy possibly could.
6,191 miles; that’s how far Dr. Yazdanbakhsh travelled from Iran to move to the United States. Already an MD in Iran before leaving, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh described practicing medicine in Iran as much different than in the United States. In Iran, an MD was expected to maintain an additional one or two other jobs in order to make a living. By submitting peer-reviewed papers to American professors via email, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh was noticed in the American research scene. Through his outgoing attitude, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh secured a spot at Boston University, where he ultimately obtained a Ph.D. in computational neuroscience.
When asked about role models, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh quickly mentions Albert Einstein. After reading one of Einstein’s books, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh was astounded by Einstein’s love of physics and mathematics. Dr. Yazdanbakhsh applied his love for physiology and found his passion in neuroscience, a field that has incredible room for innovation in combination with a subject as meticulous as mathematics.
When he first started in research, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh was involved with experiments on perception and visual experience that used eye tracking to record data from virtual reality. Tying this to reaction times, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh inferred what certain saccades meant when they occurred. This was done through the gathering of multitudes of data, then the deep analysis of the data through computer models and programs. In later research, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh became involved in researching other forms of neural modeling, the psychophysics behind Parkinson’s disease, and electrophysiology.
At Boston University, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh teaches NE 212, CN 510, and CN 530. NE 212 introduces students to the fundamentals of statistical research via MATLAB. This course focuses on explaining numerical integration programs through two settings: probability distributions and simulations of neural dynamics. CN 510/530 - Neural and Computational Models of Vision - delves into the constraints of mammalian visual processes through neural and computational models found using computer simulations.
In all his courses, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh praises the work of his students.
“The most gratifying thing is when a student of mine is thinking hard to solve a problem, and then steps outside the normal techniques and begin to think of novel ideas, more like a colleague of mine rather than a student,” Dr. Yazdanbakhsh said.
Dr. Yazdanbakhsh pairs hard thinking with creativity, and experimental design with thoroughness, all of which he describe as essential tools in a scientist’s toolkit.
For incoming neuroscience students, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh recommends building a broad view of the basis of neuroscience rather than specializing in a certain topic from the get-go.
“While there can’t be exact advice, observe as much as possible your freshman year,” Dr. Yazdanbaksh said. “Network. Talk to other students that are participating in research and find what you are interested in. This will allow you to find your niche.”
Dr. Yazdanbakhsh comments on the importance of being a part of such a distinguished neuroscience department at Boston University.
“There is a wide range of colleagues that are close together and allows for a good amount of cross-pollination. This allows for better work,” Dr. Yazdanbakhsh said. He also states that the faculty of BU is constantly giving effort, not only for their own research, but for their colleagues’ as well. “BU is the perfect place where you can walk down the street and the environment just recharges you.”
When he’s not in the classroom or in the lab, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh loves to be physically active. With a playlist ranging from Baroque to soft rock, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh enjoys tackling the gym for a workout. “The music adds a sense of rhythmicity to my workout.” When possible, Dr. Yazdanbakhsh tries to get outside and hike, as he places a lot of emphasis in connecting with natural objects, including sunlight and the outdoors.
Dr. Yazdanbakhsh’s tie to nature is evident when you walk in his office for the first time and recognize the flowering green plant hanging in the middle of the ceiling, sprawling in every direction. Dr. Yazdanbakhsh compares the vines of his plant to the dendritic spines of the brain.
“At the peak of its growth, this plant may have a few hundred leaves, so just imagine the brain is 100 times denser than this plant,” Dr. Yazdanbakhsh said. Dr. Yazdanbakhsh’s comparison highlights the detailed interconnections necessary for brain function. Like the plant and the brain, scientists around the world must come together and work in unison to answer the “serious questions that have yet been left unanswered.”
Who knows? Once that happens, there may be another parade rolling down Comm Ave, just this time, not for baseball.
Written by Trey Moore
Edited by Brian Privett, Emme Enojado
For Dr. Mario Muscedere, it all started with animals. During the weekends and summers of his childhood, the Baltimore, Maryland native would rise with the sun and escape with his dog, a mutt and former stray, to explore the woods and streams surrounding his suburban neighborhood, not returning home to reality until the dark swallowed the day.
“I was one of those kids who had to be restrained if there was a dog, cat, or any kind of animal around,” Dr. Muscedere said. “I was turning over rocks, always begging to go to the zoo, anything I could get I could not get enough of.”
Now, Dr. Muscedere is a full-time lecturer, with roles in both the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience and the Department of Biology at Boston University. Currently, he instructs BI/NE 545: Neurobiology of Motivated Behavior in the fall and BI 315: Systems Physiology and BI 542: Neuroethology in the spring. Although his intrigue with the interaction between animals and behavioral biology has been a constant in his life, he was not introduced to the field of neuroscience until he arrived at BU for his Ph.D.
“I graduated with a B.S. in Biology from the University of Maryland, so I didn’t really have any neuroscience experience until I came here,” Dr. Muscedere said. “I did my Ph.D. research in the Traniello Lab, and I thought I was just going to study termite behavior, because that’s what I was doing as an undergraduate. But the Traniello Lab was discussing a new project they wanted to explore- the physiology and neurobiology that underlies behaviors in ants. The lab was heading in that direction, and that was the first time I really started to become a neuroscientist.”
For his graduate research, he focused on studying the sensory, neuromodulatory, and behavioral mechanisms that support task performance of individual worker ants in cooperative colonies. During this time, he also learned how to perform basic neuroscience laboratory techniques, such as brain dissections and immunocytochemistry, to investigate the brain anatomy and neurochemistry of their ant subjects. Then, as a postdoctoral faculty fellow and lecturer for BU’s Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience, he assisted in the revamping of the undergraduate neuroscience major – planning and creating course themes and topics along with lab manuals and the curriculum.
“I did that for about three years, and then I got a job teaching at a small liberal arts college in Arkansas,” Dr. Muscedere said. “I worked there for three years- great school, great students- but decided to come back to Boston because it was just the right move. So when this job opened up, I went for it.”
Dr. Muscedere returned in September of 2017, making this year his second academic school year as a full time lecturer at BU. Here, he says that BU gives him the freedom to try new things, especially in terms of instructional strategies, whether that be clicker questions or starting new classes to give students interesting experiences. Additionally, as a lecturer, he is able to form meaningful academic relationships with students.
“The best part of my day is just sitting in office hours and having people come by and talking about the subject,” Dr. Muscedere said. “It can be hard to make those one-on-one relationships when you teach really big classes, but in some of my upper level classes that are about 15 students it’s a lot easier and that’s what I really like: having that personal effect on somebody’s career, having an ‘aha’ moment with them.”
He accredits this opportunity to have a personal effects with students to tight knit community of the neuroscience department.
“I think with the neuroscience program in particular, since it’s small we think a little more about undergraduate experience, whereas in some of the bigger departments where the divisions are more spread out, that’s harder to do,” he said. “So I think that it’s easier for us to get to know students than it is for some of the other programs.”
While his current focus is undergraduate education, he continues to work on research, working collaboratively with the Traniello lab and finishing up some of the projects he started in his previous job. Dr. Muscedere’s studies aim to understand how worker brain evolution may be linked to the behavioral, social, ecological, and life history variation that exists among species- investigating sensory deprivation and neuroplasticity, among other areas.
“How animals in social groups make decisions and think strategically… it’s something that applies to humans too,” he said.
For current students, he has one piece of advice.
“Think about what you might want to do when you graduate and set yourself up now to get where you want to go, as opposed to scrambling in the last two years,” Dr. Muscedere said. “So start reaching out to your professors, ask about research and shadowing opportunities, volunteering, and UROP projects. Build towards getting experience because that is what will help you get where you want to go.”
According to Dr. Muscedere, anybody who is college now for neuroscience is presumably going to witness incredible gains made in the next 30-50 years- because of this, going to graduate school for neuroscience opens up the opportunities to work on projects that are truly cutting edge.
“In many ways, the field of neuroscience is still in its infancy,” Dr. Muscedere said. “The central problem in neuroscience, or at least behavioral neuroscience, is how do we connect activity of neural circuits to behavior? That question is still almost wide open, and what better time to get involved than in the beginning?”
Written by: Emme Enojado
Editor: Yasmine Sami
College often emits the energy of a coffee shop on a Friday morning: the overwhelming presence of chaos, the necessity of caffeine, and the scarcity of places to fit in. In the midst of this hectic, congested, and high-strung environment sits the unperturbed and poised Radhika Dhanak, senior in the College of Arts and Sciences and current President of the Mind and Brain Society. She sips her small latte as she admires the silent presence of the trees outside the window and ignores the imposing energy that surrounds her. Radhika’s mind, however, is not as tranquil as her disposition, “sometimes I look at the trees and feel in awe, these things just grow,” she said. “I’m so insignificant, it really takes the pressure off.” She radiates the same serene, but calculating, energy from the comfort of the coffee shop as she does while delegating as MBS’s fearless leader.
Radhika’s childhood was just as dynamic and ever-changing as her mind. She lived a comfortable life of consistency in Dubai where her future could be seen in the shadow of her older brother and sister. This changed at the age of fifteen when she moved to Ahmedabad, India. “[Moving] was just this disruption, you know?” Radhika said. “It was like uprooting everything when you had just laid down the roots...It was letting go of everything that was familiar.”
In hindsight, she recalls feeling enlightened. “I wouldn’t trade [my experience] for anything else, I wouldn’t have done the things I did afterwards [if it hadn't happened], I wouldn't have learned to live and think the way I do now. Moving was necessary.”
Radhika attended two different academic institutions while she lived in India, and the two offered very different experiences.
“My first school wasn’t very pleasant,” she said. “By the second time I moved I really shut myself out and didn’t take full advantage of the opportunity that was in front of me. Now, I know to be more receptive to things and not just live in my head.”
Her second institution focused heavily on experiential learning, which taught her about passion, leadership, and empathy. Her director held the theory that schools are for students.
“When it comes to rules, we decide,” Radhika said. “You do the work that matters to you and you give back to society.” She carried this wisdom across the Atlantic to Boston University, where she now uses it to fulfill her three academic disciplines -- neuroscience, philosophy, and visual arts -- and to give back to the neuroscience community by serving as president of one of the most prominent academic organizations on campus.
As for why she decided to live a fifteen hour flight away from home, she offers the following recollection.
“I was planning to study in the UK, which is where my sister studied at the time, but I would’ve depended on her for everything and I really didn’t want that,” she said. “I wanted to learn on my own, so I applied to BU and forced myself again to learn from change.”
The biggest challenge presented itself in the form of her first year, and once she conquered it, she found one lesson to be very true.
“Every single semester presents a new challenge, you always come out of it thinking that you’ve figured it all out, and then the next one starts and you realize you really haven’t figured it out at all, it’s difficult.”
Her second year was comprised of constant questioning.
“I had many existential crises… I’d look outside and see people in cars and see people in buildings and I thought, why? What are we doing? Why are we doing this? What does this mean?”
These questions inspired her to take a class on existentialism and to declare a second major in the discipline that would give her much needed perspective.
“I started thinking: what do my actions mean? How do I make them purposeful? Am I supposed to be selfish and invested in my head?” she said. “It’s my responsibility to think better than that, to try to change something, to go where there is an imbalance of access and resources.”
Her junior year became a result of her enlightenment: she became MBS secretary, an LA, a research assistant, and a peer mentor, declared a minor in visual arts, and took five classes each semester.
Though Radhika currently works in the Reinhart Lab at Boston University -- a lab that seeks to understand the nature of visual perception and cognition in the healthy adult brain and how it is affected by aging and neuropsychiatric illnesses -- her primary goals in life are not necessarily career oriented.
“I think my primary goal is to figure out what life means to me and understand how I can live it well,” she said. “In everything that I do, I focus on figuring out what I needed to learn from that situation and try to expand my understanding of life, people, and myself. If you’re looking to learn, you can learn from anything, so I hold on to neuroscience, I hold on to philosophy, I hold on to visual arts, then I add things outside of them to take full advantage of this time in my life, this place and its resources.”
Her advice to her fellow undergrads is to aim to understand what their work ethic is.
"Once you understand how you like to function, it's easier to focus on what you can and want to achieve.
“Then learn the skills necessary to succeed in your field: get lab experience, take upper level classes, force yourself to reflect, When you’re in a field like neuroscience you forget your passions because you might be so focused on doing the most competitive thing within the field; no, do what makes sense to you because then it isn't a competition.”
In that moment, Radhika made it evident that the most placid people have some of the loudest, most active minds.
Writer: Stephanie Gonzalez
Editors: Emme Enojado, Enzo Plaitano, and Yasmine Sami
As one enters the room on a rainy Monday afternoon, it’s difficult to escape the faint impression of mad science afoot. Papers and folders lay scattered over the floor and work desks in a secret pattern. In front of the spacious window sits a singular Dyson bladeless fan, eternally cool with its space age aesthetic. The whiteboard walls are plastered with various markings – equations, questions, drawings scientific and whimsical – that fill the room with scholarly energy. This is the office of Dr. Jeff Gavornik; and in the middle, tea in hand, sits the man himself.
Dr. Gavornik teaches NE203/BI325: Principles of Neuroscience, one of the core courses for neuroscience students at BU. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of Biology at BU and P.I. of his own Gavornik Lab. However, like most of us, Dr. Gavornik hasn’t always been here; his unique path to BU has been filled with interesting developments and detours. Growing up, his father was a pilot in the Air Force, and so Dr. Gavornik’s childhood was spotted with relocations from Alaska (his birthplace) to Arizona, Texas, Ohio, and back to Texas again. Ultimately, Texas became his ‘home,’ as he spent his high school years there before attending Rice University in the late 90s for undergraduate studies in Electrical & Computer Engineering & History.
While studying at Rice, Dr. Gavornik interned for two stints at MITRE in Bedford, MA, a non-for-profit research and development corporation partnering closely with the federal government. There, he worked on a project concerning acceptance testing for the production of the now well-known Iridium satellite network. His experience proved useful, as while his undergraduate studies were winding down, he was approached by Boeing’s space program for work on their own Iridium-related contract. Unfortunately (or luckily), Boeing’s Iridium contract fell through, and Dr. Gavornik was shifted to work on the International Space Station with NASA.
Of his time there, Dr. Gavornik recalls that “there were very interesting things about it,” including cool technical developments such as a “neat robot arm designed so it could reach over itself, from one part to another part, and sort of inchworm its way across the Space Station.” In addition, the program paid for his Master’s Degree at Rice in Electrical Engineering (2003), which he earned simultaneously. However, the day-to-day tedium proved oppressive. The ISS was an international effort on most levels, he explained, and so it was rife with the inevitable (and painful) sorts of debates and compromises which hinder a project’s tangible progress.
“Meetings and TPS forms, planning, sitting in these really long international meetings… falling asleep for days at a time, while people were arguing about whose responsibility these things should be – the day-to-day stuff wasn’t super exciting,” he said. It didn’t seem to get better either, as he remembers being “surrounded by people who were my age now, and they were doing the exact same stuff I was doing, and I was already sort of getting bored with it.”
Turning away from industry, Dr. Gavornik moved from Houston to attend graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin.
“I didn’t honestly even know what neuroscience was, and didn’t necessarily intend to.” he said. “I applied, and sort of my philosophy was, ‘I’ll take classes broadly, and whatever I think is interesting, I’ll do.’ Because I’d had the other experience of basically doing something I wasn’t super excited about for a job, and so I knew that wasn’t the most fun in the world.”
This approach still netted Dr. Gavornik a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering in 2009, but along the way he found interest in neuroscience, recalling his introductory class in computational neuroscience with particular fondness to this day. After UT, Dr. Gavornik performed postdoctoral research at MIT for five years in what he described as a “pressure-cooker” environment, “where everybody just feels like they’re so wound tight and really have to do well, or the world’s going to end.” It wasn’t until 2015 that he finally made BU his home, due partly to fortuitous circumstance.
“You’re sort of at the mercy of who has job applications posted when you’re at the right point in your career to be competitive, and so really the thing that brought me to BU was the fact that they had a position posted at the time I was applying, appropriate for what I was looking for (in systems neuroscience).” Dr. Gavornik said. “If they didn’t have the posting, I could have ended up at Purdue, or wherever. That said, I think it turned out to be a really great place for me, for a variety of reasons. One of them is that BU is really supportive of neuroscience right now as an area of expertise…. From the perspective of someone that’s a faculty member here, it’s great. They want you to do well, there’s real support for doing the experiments, and there’s support for having the equipment necessary.”
Beyond the institutional support, Dr. Gavornik also relishes the overall academic environment at BU.
“It’s a very nice combination, I think, of being a very good university with very good students interested in science, hard workers, but also who seem enthusiastic and happy to be here,” he said. “There’s a lot of places where it’s very smart, and it’s super aggressive. BU, in my experience, is not that way – it’s very smart, and it’s friendly about it.”
Bouncing off his praise of the student environment, we decided to ask Dr. Gavornik what advice he could provide to the students themselves. His answer got into more detail, and emphasized basic principles of scholarship and life in general.
“These things just don’t fall in your lap. You have to actively work for the things you want, and even the things you may not want but are important for you to have. Do the leg work.”
More specifically, he noted the significance of putting yourself out there for networking events, and the importance of having Plans A and B to work towards.
“You have to be realistic. With any sort of job where isn’t going to actually happen.” Correspondingly, even though he left industry for academia, Dr. Gavornik underscored the need to understand the opportunities in industry when considering there are a high number of people interested and technically qualified, unless you are an unusual individual or in unusual circumstances, you might just have to get lucky,” he said.…. “ You have to recognize that there are certain things out of your control, and recognize there’s a certain degree of randomness, and plan for the possibility that what it is that you want to do future with academic goals, or vice versa.
When one talks with Dr. Gavornik about the future itself, however, things become a bit hazier (and brighter). There’s a feeling, he explains, that neuroscience is on the edge of a very productive period resembling that of the physics revolution in the early 1900s, or NASA during its most exciting period of pioneering space exploration.
“In a sense, the entirety of our experience of the world is a consequence of how the neurons in our brain are wired together,” he said. “If we understood how the brain works, then in principle we could understand the entirety of the experience of being human.” What a golden age of scientific discovery that would be.
However, as Dr. Gavornik says, we still struggle to fully understand the function of even the simplest neurological systems, and thus “the big questions like ‘what is the nature of existence as defined by the brain’ are yet to be answered.” To know that these ‘big questions’ still lie as sleeping giants invokes a sense of wonder, and genuine inspiration – they are why Dr. Gavornik says he began studying neuroscience in the first place. Hopefully, the answers will reveal themselves soon.
Writer: Brian Privett
Editors: Emme Enojado, Enzo Plaitano, and Yasmine Sami
Outside of Boston University, when the work hours come to a pause, Dr. Paul Lipton lives a life of adventure. He zooms past cars on his motorcycle, with his long time fantasy of becoming a race car driver in mind. He’s explored the beauty of the South Pacific Ocean when he scuba dived in Fiji and New Zealand. He’s climbed mountains and down glaciers in Alaska, and has set foot in European streets a dozen times.
But this life of adventure and excitement does not end when he bikes into campus every morning. Here, he is the director of the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience, leading and guiding passionately curious minds. He is an associate director for the Boston University Kilachand Honors College and a faculty advisor for the Mind and Brain Society. Here, working alongside students and faculty, he instills an invaluable excitement for learning.
As a child, Dr. Lipton was constantly surrounded by conversations on human nature and the psychology of people, as his father was an English professor who taught about the psychology of adolescents through literature. This exposure developed a deep curiosity to understand how people work, but he found that just thinking about it from a psychological perspective was unsatisfying — he wanted to learn about the mechanisms behind the brain.
However, neuroscience was a fledgling field at the undergraduate level when he was in college, and Dr. Lipton graduated with a B.A. in Economics at SUNY Buffalo. Studying neuroscience did not cross his mind until his father connected him with one of his colleagues in the neurobiology department at Stony Brook University.
“In my senior year of college, I was trying to decide if I should apply to medical school or law school — those were the two options at the time,” Dr. Lipton said. “My father got my in contact with his colleague who happened to be a neurobiologist, and he told me about some really cool experiments that I had never even conceived of before.’”
After speaking with his father’s colleague, he also developed a newfound fascination for the field. Exploring the insights of the human mind through experimental methods mesmerized him, leading him to apply to the graduate program.
“It was not a very well informed decision,” Dr. Lipton said. “I knew very little about neuroscience, had never even taken a neuroscience class before, and had only taken one introductory psychology course. I applied blindly, and was accepted.”
From there, he studied the neurocircuitry that supports different types of learning and memory at a cognitive neurobiology laboratory at Stony Brook. When this lab transferred up to Boston, Dr. Lipton also moved to the city and stayed here till he got his PhD at Boston University in 2000.
Dr. Lipton returned to Boston University’s neuroscience department in 2003 as an academic director, and has been the director of the undergraduate program since 2013. As the director of the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience, Dr. Lipton is responsible for overseeing the curriculum, managing course changes and new policies, and communicating with program faculty and the dean’s office. Outside of the neuroscience department, Dr. Lipton is one of two associate directors for the Boston University Kilachand Honors College, where he oversees and revises the curriculum and works with students on their senior keystone projects.
Every fall, Dr. Lipton teaches NE 101: Introduction to Neuroscience — the first core neuroscience course that majors take. This course on the biological basis of behavior and cognition covers topics from neuroanatomy and biology to the basics of neuropsychiatric disorders. Approximately 150 students fill the lecture room three times a week, and the room constantly brims with energy and engagement.
“Almost every week there’s something new in class, and the characters I see on a weekly basis make me laugh,” Dr. Lipton said. “Some of the individuals in that class make it a very fun place to be. They make it light, different — so the class never gets old.”
Outside of class, students come to Dr. Lipton’s office hours, where he answers any questions about material that students have and opens the space to discussions.
“I love the conversations I have with students,” Dr. Lipton said. “I love hearing hearing each and every individual student’s story — what makes their particular experiences both here and outside of the classroom and the university unique.”
Dr. Lipton also says that some notable experiences are when students put their ideas into action. These events include those hosted by BU Mind and Brain Society —such as BRAIN Day, an annual event that educates the Boston community on the wonders of the human mind, and Miracle Berries, an event that lets participants experience how taste perception changes by eating a berry — and independent programming.
“One year, a student wanted to put on a symposium about music and the brain, and he recruited four internationally recognized scholars on music and neuroscience, the Boston Symphony Brass Quartet to perform in the evening, and had about 300 people register for the event,” Dr. Lipton said. “To see one student’s dedication and then follow through for putting together a program like this was phenomenal.”
To Dr. Lipton, one of the reasons why the neuroscience program at BU is unique is because of the people: from the contagious enthusiasm of the students who tread Commonwealth Avenue to the dedication of the professors and faculty, who continuously put students and their learning first.
“The people make the place, they define the culture of the place, they are the heart of what makes up this place — and what I think is exciting about being here in Boston is the unbelievably rich community of neuroscience that’s going on between all the different universities,” Dr. Lipton said. “That exact excitement is what makes teaching never get old. Constantly seeing a new group of students express this amazement for the way the system works keeps me invigorated. It’s the enthusiasm of the students that’s really unlike anything I have ever seen.”
Written by: Emme Enojado
Editors: Yoana Grigorova, Stephanie Gonzalez, Enzo Plaitano