„Light is playing an increasingly important role as a tool in experimental neuroscience. Fluorescent proteins are routinely used to illuminate neurons of interest. And with tools from the new research field of optogenetics, it is now also possible to activate or deactivate individual neurons, simply by focusing light onto them. However, as anyone who has held a flashlight up to their hand might know, light scatters significantly as it passes through tissue. Thus, many of the current optical tools used in experimental neuroscience operate only on the top layers of the brain, since it is challenging to focus light beneath its surface. My research project aims to precisely control light deeper within the brain. We use new optical designs and processing algorithms to undo the effects of optical scattering, in an attempt to resolve living neurons in brain areas that have so far been hidden from our view.“
What do you do first thing in the morning when you arrive at your workplace, and why?
The first thing I do in the morning when I arrive at the workplace is grab a cup of coffee. Then, I go over my notes from the previous day. This helps me get back into the mindset of where I was when I left the lab the night before. However, it is never exactly the same mindset, so it often becomes the time when I am most clearly able to see the mistakes I may have been making the previous day, as well as new ways to consider whatever problem I had been thinking about.
What would your research project look like if it was a piece of art?
I think my research project would most likely look like an abstract painting, like something by Franz Kline. Or maybe it’s more like a Coen brothers film. A primary goal of my work is to see interesting things buried deep within tissue, which are otherwise completely obscured to the naked eye. We do so using standard optical tools but also with some thoughtful computational tricks. In some ways, this goal reminds me of the process of slowly uncovering the meaning of an abstract work of art, by thinking about it carefully and not just taking it at face value.
Is there a place in Berlin that links to the work on your research project?
I have not yet had a chance to see all of Berlin, but I work with light a lot, and one place I’ve noticed that the light looks fantastic is in a biergarten in the evening. You could maybe even say that the strings of lights they hang above the tables look a bit like fluorescently tagged cells or neurons in the brain, but this might be a bit of a stretch.
Which district in Berlin do you like the most, and why?
So far I’ve explored just a small fraction of everything that Berlin has to offer, but I really enjoyed biking around Tempelhofer Park! It is just such a unique place, and really beautiful on a sunny day. I also really like to skateboard, and it was the first place that I saw lots of people using some type of kite-skateboard combination along the runway, which looked like a lot of fun.
What characteristics distinguish reseachers from other people?
One thing that I think is somewhat unique about scientific researchers is that they are usually quite optimistic about long-term goals and trends. Experiments can take months or years to complete, and they are often filled with many different challenges and pitfalls. This provides scientists with a pretty good training for staying positive in the face of adversity. It also helps encourage a bird’s-eye view type mentality for tough problems. I think these two attributes translate a bit into a generally positive outlook on the long-term issues we face.
Credits: Pablo Castagnola