Why did you decide to work in neuroscience and what was your background before coming to neuroscience?
Reply: When I started as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California, I was primarily interested in becoming a physician and then I lost interest in that and felt (quite erroneously) that medicine is about fixing things rather than discovering things. I was interested in discovering things and that's what focused me on the field of neuroscience. As an undergrad, I studied learning abilities in twins and administered cognitive tests in monozygotic and dizygotic twins to understand how much of memory ability can be attributed to genetic versus environmental factors. After that experience, I decided to move to simpler systems where brain mechanisms of learning could be discovered.
Where did you grow up and why did you move from that place? What were the driving factors for choosing your field?
Reply: I spent my formative years in Southern California and pursued my undergraduate education there as well. After that, I was drawn towards Princeton and decided to shift coasts. At Princeton, I had the opportunity to study synaptic plasticity in the invertebrate, Hermissenda crassicornis. I used two-electrode voltage clamps to study changes in ionic currents that underlie associative memory. As a postdoc, I wanted to study plasticity in vitro. This was when brain slice preparation was becoming increasingly used, leading me to further my research on memory formation with Dan Madison at Stanford.
What were the obstacles when you first started working on local translation? How have modern discoveries helped you to propel your research in these directions?
Reply: The early stages of my work on local translation were not straightforward. There was a sense of skepticism and resistance towards the idea of local translation, which required us to work even harder to prove its validity. At the time of our original breakthrough, the major challenge was the limited knowledge about the localized mRNAs available for local translation. This was mostly because these mRNAs were largely discovered one-by-one, by individual labs that were specifically interested in certain genes. The advent of next-generation sequencing technology allowed us and others to discover the full set of mRNAs present in dendrites and axons. I’m happy that advanced imaging and molecular methods have contributed to a resurgence in interest in the study of the basic cell biology of the neuron. The questions we are attempting to answer have pushed us to develop new tools for studying basic cell biology.
How would you encourage diversity in modern science from your position?
Reply: In my personal efforts, I’ve mostly focused on gender diversity. In Europe, most women leave the field at the junction between postdoc and assistant professor, a big part of the problem is perceived and actual access to childcare. In countries like Germany, there is also cultural pressure and financial incentives for women to stay home and take care of their children. At our institute, we worked hard to make childcare available at 3 months and have an infant and kids room in our building. In the biomedical section of the Max Planck Society, we’ve made huge progress in recruiting women at the director level. Actually, Yale’s own Joe Howard (who was then a Director at the MPI in Dresden) and I wrote a white paper that took stock of our situation and recommended explicit changes- it was called 20 x 2020 (the goal being 20% women directors by 2020). In 2012 there were only 10% women directors, now we are at close to 24%. We changed the way we search and recruit colleagues- at almost every level- from the search strategy to the committee composition to the interview. We’ve started tracking progress at individual institutes and across the society. We’ve really made change happen and that’s something that I’m proud of.
What advice would you give to young students who are about to start their career or how would you advise them to choose a career problem?
Reply: My key advice to young students is to find a scientific problem that truly fascinates them. This will fuel their enthusiasm and willingness to invest time and intellectual energy, both of which are essential to science. Other considerations such as techniques and funding should be secondary to their passion for their scientific question.