Benjamin D. Auerbach, Assistant Professor
by Virginia Wright
Benjamin D. Auerbach is an assistant professor in the Department of Molecular and Integrative Physiology, and he studies how experience-dependent plasticity influences perception and behavior. Auerbach comes from what he describes as “a family of scientists”. “Both my mom and my dad were academic researchers in biology, so I got exposed to science and research in a lab setting at an early age,” he shared. While he now jokes that he is “just continuing the family business,” he initially pursued an undergraduate degree in history. “I was interested in how societies are formed and how large groups of people interact. Looking back now, I think what I was truly fascinated by was social behavior. I took sociology classes, then psychology classes, and then eventually made my way back around to neuroscience.”
As a sophomore at Cornell University, Auerbach took an animal behavior course that cultivated his interest in neuroscience. The class studied all kinds of animals, from honeybees to naked mole rats. “I liked learning about why these animals live the way they do, about the evolutionary pressures and neurobiological mechanisms driving their behavior,” Auerbach recalled. “I’ve always had a keen interest in understanding the mechanisms of behavior, something I still focus on in my work today.”
It was in that same animal behavior class where Auerbach first came across the concept of plasticity, or the ability of neural networks in the brain to grow and evolve. Plasticity later became a major focus of his graduate research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I studied how synapses work, how receptors allow them to change or respond to activity, and how that process goes awry in neurodevelopmental disorders, particularly in autism,” said Auerbach. At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, he continues to research the neurobiological mechanisms behind autism spectrum disorders.
Auerbach’s favorite part of the research process is when he gets a new result, especially an unexpected one. Very often, however, he must be patient before getting to enjoy such moments of discovery. “There’s a lot of delayed gratification in science,” he explained. “You do all these manipulations and measurements, but you don’t get the results for days to weeks later.” Electrophysiology, one of the main techniques Auerbach uses in his research, is unique in that it provides more immediate input. “With electrophysiology, you put your probe into the brain and get that real-time data acquisition feedback. You can hear the neurons. You can listen to them crackling and popping and firing away.”
When asked what makes the University of Illinois a good place to conduct his research, Auerbach noted the “diversity of thought” that defines the institution. “I think the Neuroscience Program here highlights that diversity,” he elaborated. “I believe there are now over fifty faculty approaching neuroscience in a broad variety of ways, whether it’s human imaging studies, growing brains in a dish, or doing analytical chemistry and engineering. There’s a lot of ways to get at this question of how the brain works.”
Something else Auerbach felt the University of Illinois offered that other top research institutions lacked was a supportive work environment. “A lot of the institutions I’ve been at have a sink-or-swim mentality. While that can work in some respects, it’s not exactly a fun way to do research,” he said. “I think the University of Illinois does a really good job of setting junior faculty up to succeed rather than to fail. They don’t need you to claw your way to the top. They want to help you get there, to boost you up.”
In the spirit of helping fellow research enthusiasts, Auerbach provided some candid advice to those interested in pursuing his same career path. “Failure is a big part of science. Experiments are going to fail, grants are not going to get funded, and manuscripts are going to get rejected,” he shared. “If it’s just a job to you, then it’s not a great job. The best advice I can give is to take pride in your work.” Whether he’s designing an experiment or mowing the lawn, Auerbach tries to embrace this mentality in every aspect of his life. “If you take pride in your work, then you can be happy about what you're doing no matter what the result is.”
Auerbach dove deeper into the matter of failure with a personal example from when he first began researching. As an undergraduate, he participated in a laboratory that worked with the stomatogastric ganglion of the lobster stomach. “This is a group of about a dozen neurons or so that controls the peristaltic movement of the stomach when swallowing food,” he explained. “The idea was that because we knew all the neurons involved, all their synaptic inputs and outputs, it would be a great reduced model for understanding circuit function.” Despite the relative simplicity of the stomatogastric ganglion circuit, Auerbach struggled with the preparation process, which resulted in many failed experiments. “You had to dissect the stomach out of the lobster, butterfly it, and remove the nerve circuit. Everything is the same color, and all the connective tissue looks the same too. But just one wrong snip, and you ruin the whole thing.”
All those unsuccessful preparations for the stomatogastric ganglion were admittedly “frustrating” and “tough as an introduction to science”. However, Auerbach appreciates having been introduced to the frequency of failure so early in his research career. “I still learned a lot in that lab and had fun, but it let me know that there’s going to be failures along the way,” he recalled. “The good news was that, for every dissection that I did, I got to keep the lobster tail. At the end of the week, even if I didn’t get any data, I at least had a nice lobster dinner.”
Because his parents also worked with animals for their biological research, Auerbach grew up with a pet frog named after Lafayette Leake, the acclaimed American pianist featured on many Chuck Berry recordings. “My dad brought him home from the lab around the same time I was born, and this frog lived to be 36 years old. For a while, I thought he was going to outlive me,” he remembered. “We named him Lafayette Leake because he loved listening to Chuck Berry. He would chirp, he would sing essentially... and the only time he would sing was when my dad played Chuck Berry on the record player.” With a family of his own now, Auerbach and his wife settled on a slightly more conventional pet for their two daughters: a dog named Charlie.
Auerbach considered himself “lucky” to have received so much encouragement and mentorship over the years, and he credited his parents as his most ardent supporters. He particularly reflected upon the impact of his mother, who passed away recently. “My love of science comes from both my parents, but my mom brought that enthusiasm. She was a self-described ‘huge nerd’, and she would get really excited about research,” shared Auerbach. “I remember going down to the local pond and collecting some water samples with her. Looking at the pond water under the microscope, she would get so excited pointing out the different kinds of weird microbes in there to me.” Auerbach’s mother was not only supportive of her son but also very happy to see him doing research like her. “She was definitely one of the biggest influences in my life.”