Q&A with Dr. Viviana Gradinaru of @Caltech biology: Quickstep from start-up to academia
Biology professor and brain researcher is featured as part of Cell journal’s 40 under 40
By the Cell Team Posted on 31 July 2014
To celebrate 40 years of Cell, the journal's editorial team invited 40 scientists from around the world who are working in many biological fields — all under the age of 40 — to talk about science, their personal philosophies, the joys and challenges of research, and their lives away from the bench. When choosing which scientists to highlight, the editorial team focused on young researchers from diverse scientific and geographical areas who are grappling with questions that are on the cutting edge of science. Many of these researchers have already made significant contributions to their field of study and are recipients of various awards and accolades.
Read about a report just published by Dr. Gradinaru and her colleagues in Cell: See-through organs and bodies will accelerate biomedical discoveries.
1. What are the questions that inspire your lab?
Broadly defined, my research group works on understanding how neuronal connectivity and activity give rise to behavior. At the practical level, this involves us building needed tools to achieve control and sensing of neuronal activity as well as methods to allow for better anatomical mapping. Specific projects include looking at how much use and abuse our cells can take through our experiences (for example, chronic intense stressors or through aging too) and how we might go about reversing the process or at least slow it down.
2. Who are the scientists, living or dead, that you admire? If you could, who would you work with?
Many scientists have inspired my past and current work, especially neuroscientists I was fortunate to work with in various roles. However, for guiding principles in research and beyond, there are two whose work and ideas have been very influential to me: Richard Feynman for his vision on how tools that can perturb or observe at the nanoscale level will impact the future of biology (detailed in his paper "There is plenty of room at the bottom") and Uri Alon for getting scientists to openly talk not only about the scientific results but also about the scientific process, especially during the challenging and many times uncertain training years (I highly recommend his TEDx talk).
3. Which Cell papers, from any era, have struck you as truly elegant or inspired?
"Microbiota Modulate Behavioral and Physiological Abnormalities Associated with Neurodevelopmental Disorders" from the groups of Sarkis Mazmanian and Paul Patterson (Hsiao, E.Y., et al. . Cell 155, 1451–1463)!
As a neuroscientist who thinks a lot only about the brain, this recent paper on the link between autism and the microbiome has been especially exciting because, at least from my brain-centric perspective, it opens yet another axis and method of potential access to modulate the brain. Access to the central nervous system is still a challenge, despite the success of therapies such as deep brain stimulation or ours and others work on optogenetics. This paper points toward an additional access port into the brain through modulation of microbiota that can affect peripheral innervation and/or circulating metabolites with relevance to numerous brain disorders.
4. What is your guiding philosophy for running your lab? Your personal philosophy?
I believe that people with different backgrounds can stimulate each other and create unexpected solutions to difficult challenges, so our lab is very interdisciplinary and we have diverse projects and collaborations. It requires patience, though, as you can go faster alone on known paths but farther as a group on new grounds. It helps to have the time and funding to allow unusual ideas and partnerships to incubate and flourish.
5. What are some unique skills that didn't make it to your CV? What are some personal hobbies?
I used to be a decent ballroom dancer and competed at the amateur level early in graduate school. Quickstep was a favorite.
6. What is the biggest challenge facing young scientists? Do you have a solution?
The uncertainty whether they will be allowed to continue doing what they love to do with the low number of faculty positions. Solution? More senior-level scientists appropriately compensated. Allen Brain Institute is a wonderful example. If academic institutions could adopt the model too it would help—federal grants could add this category for their support.
7. If you were to choose another career either now or in 20 years, what would it be?
My commitment is to improving human mental health. At the moment I think that I am best suited to do this through basic research in my laboratory and teaching in academia.
There are however many paths for scientists and I experienced two so far: academic (now as an Assistant Professor at Caltech) and entrepreneurial. Prior to joining the faculty at Caltech, I was the founding Chief Technology Officer of an optogenetics start-up, Circuit Therapeutics, focused on developing optogenetic therapies for disorders of the nervous system (central and periphery), which was founded in collaboration with Stanford colleagues.
I liked both experiences, and if I were to choose again in 20 years, I think I would like to see through some of our discoveries that we will make in the laboratory reaching out to the world for a broader impact. Whether this would take the form of a startup or policy making is to be decided.
8. Working in science is wonderful and challenging but is not without drawbacks. What has been a particular challenge to you?
Similar to the one I mentioned above: the uncertainty whether I would be allowed to continue doing what I love to do during my faculty job search because of the many wonderfully qualified scientists I have met and the low number of positions. And also because my husband is also a scientist and we needed two jobs, not one.
9. Any words of wisdom for those looking for a career in biology?
Have meaningful fun. Be patient, be persistent. And watch Uri Alon's TEDx talk!
Elsevier Connect Contributors
The 40 under 40 project team worked together on the questions posted to the scientists to highlight their research and scientific philosophy. Team members are Dr. Karen Carniol, Julie Fiorilla; Anna Hofvander; Dr. Mirna Kvajo, Dr. Jiaying Tan, Andrew Tang and Andy Smith.