Dr. Yassa, a Neurobiology and Behavior professor in the School of Biological Sciences here at UCI, was our first Spotlight Neuroscientist of the Month for February 2019. We started off the month by hosting a Journal Club meeting, which was centered around some of Dr. Yassa’s most foundational work for his research at UCI. We began by discussing pattern separation in the hippocampus. Pattern separation is the process of making similar neural patterns of activity more distinct, which is made possible by the anatomical wiring of the hippocampus and surrounding brain regions. We learned that there is a general consensus that the dentate gyrus responds to relatively small changes in input, which might initiate pattern separation signals in the CA3. The second paper we read gave more detail on how the hippocampus preserves order and the role of prediction and context. By reading and discussing two of Dr. Yassa’s research papers, we were more prepared for the lab tour to come in the following weeks.
Maria Montchal and Steve Granger, two graduate students in Dr. Yassa’s Translational Neurobiology Lab, graciously hosted a tour of Dr. Yassa’s lab. Each of them gave a brief overview of their research in the lab, including projects involving computational analysis of behavioral data and neuroimaging. While some of our members were more familiar with neuroimaging techniques, it was interesting to hear about the computational aspect of the lab. Maria talked to us more in detail about her research, which analyzes how people preserve the order events. She showed examples of structural MRI scans and emphasized the differences between a healthy and clinical/aged brain. Steve’s research involves studying biomarkers for depression through using various imaging techniques, including structural, functional, and diffusion MRI. He also studies the neurobiology of emotional memory systems (emotional pattern separation) and how differences in these processes change with symptom severity in the healthy, clinical, and aged population. Steve demonstrated computational techniques to analyze diffusion MRI scans by calculating the nodes with the greatest connectivity to other brain regions. Both Maria and Steve discussed pattern separation as an element of their research, which we read about during Journal Club. Being able to connect these ideas that we read in the papers to current, ongoing studies gave us further insight into the concepts we read and discussed previously.
After this thorough lab tour, Dr. Yassa sat down with us for a luncheon the following Monday. Having a chance to sit down with him and talk about his path to neuroscience was a unique opportunity–it allowed our members to better understand how faculty members reach their current positions, but from a more personal perspective than what one might have received in a brief introduction at a lecture or an event of a similar variety. As everyone munched on their slice of pizza, Dr. Yassa explained to us how he first became interested in neuroscience. Johns Hopkins, Dr. Yassa’s alma mater university, required all students to enroll in a freshman seminar. To fulfill this requirement, Dr. Yassa enrolled in a brain sciences class and he found the topic particularly interesting. After this class, he became fascinated by the brain and wanted to know more about how it all worked. This inspired him to take several more neuroscience classes, and he eventually realized he had ‘accidentally’ become a neuroscience major. Coincidentally enough, Dr. Yassa helped found Nu Rho Psi at Johns Hopkins, which was the first chapter in Nu Rho Psi history.
When asked what skill would be useful to have when pursuing a career in neuroscience or a related field, Dr. Yassa responded that computational skills are an essential part of education and brain science research. This was news to some of our members. From advanced computational analysis to coding behavioral tasks, programming will be in the future for us. Even if we might not be the ones coding everything, it is still essentially to understand the code our collaborators might write. This was an extremely valuable piece of advice. From Dr. Yassa’s story and words of advice, we were able to gain a new perspective on neuroscience that some of us had never been exposed to before. Dr. Yassa’s path, while somewhat unconventional, definitely sets an example for all neuroscience students.
Last Thursday, we came together for a colloquium where Dr. Yassa presented more generally on his path to neuroscience and then broadened our perspectives with the most current neuroscience projects that are changing society as we speak. One of these projects was the ‘Iron Man’ suit, which Duke neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis created with a team of more than 150 other scientists. This suit was created as a part of the Walk Again Project, which aimed to create a technology that allows paraplegics to walk again through the use of EEG. It was extremely powerful to see how a project in neuroscience had the capacity to make such a huge difference in the lives of others. It was this project and others mentioned by Dr. Yassa that shed a positive light on the future of neuroscience, and inspired us all to continue learning as much as we can about the brain in order to create a better tomorrow for society.
More on the Walk Again Project