Panayiota Poirazi is a computational neuroscientist who holds a Research Director position at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (IMBB), of the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (FORTH), on the Greek island of Crete. Her research focuses on the question how dendrites – branched extensions of nerve cells – influence complex brain functions, such as learning and memory. As an Einstein Visiting Fellow, the neuroscientist will contribute to the research activities of "NeuroCure", Cluster of Excellence, at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, investigating neuronal mechanisms regarding behavioural flexibility. Dr Poirazi's expertise in using computational modeling techniques is considered to be an immense enrichment for neuroscientific research in Berlin.
Please close your eyes and think about your research project. What do you see at first?
I see little mice trying to figure out whether to turn left or right while different patterns of moving shapes are presented to them in side screens. Deep inside their scalps, through a microscope, I see groups of brain cells lighting up as they make their decision.
How would you explain your research to a child?
You know that a red traffic light means that we have to stop while a green one means go ahead, right? What would happen if suddenly this rule is reversed, so that green mean "stop" and red means "go" but nobody tells about this? How long will it take for you to figure it out and what happens in your brain during this time? To answer this question we train mice to switch between different rules while looking inside their brains with fancy microscopes. We use the data we collect to build models of the brain in the computer to help us understand how brains solve this type of problems.
What is it that surprises people when you tell them about your research?
People are usually fascinated when I tell them that I study the brain using computational models. They are fascinated by the complexity of the neural tissue, with its billions of neurons and trillions of synapses. They are also amazed that despite this complexity, we can actually build and use computational models to advance our understanding of brain functions.
With whom would you like to swap your workplace for one day? What would you do?
With a famous architect like Zaha Hadid (who unfortunately died a few years ago) or Frank Gehry. I would indulge in the creative process of combining art with optimal functionality of newly born buildings or objects.
Is there any rather unusual hobby or talent you might want to share with us?
Not much time for hobbies I'm afraid, I'm too busy with work and devote the rest of my time to family. I love to dance when I get a chance.
What did your research teach you about life?
That I am extremely lucky to be doing something I really enjoy as a profession. Our generation spends too much time at work. If this time is not satisfying, it negatively impacts our career as well as our health and personal lives. Knowing about the brain and how work-related stress can influence daily life has made me very appreciative for my quality of life, both as a scientist and as a person.
What would your job be, if not a scientist?
Something that combines reasoning, creativity and art. I would love to be an architect, as they are faced with the challenges of coming up with original designs that combine functionality, efficiency and style.
Which place in Berlin do you like the most, and why?
My neighbourhood in Prenzlauer Berg. It is romantic, classy and quiet.
Is there anything about Berlin that you didn’t expect at all? And/or something that you miss here? What makes Berlin special for your research?
Berlin is amazing for my research. It offers a great environment that combines top research in both experimental and theoretical neuroscience. I will work closely with faculty in Charite, Humboldt and the Bernstein Center thus capitalizing on all of this intellectual talent.