How would you describe your background? (I.E. where you are from? How did you first get interested in your area of research? Etc.)
When I was an undergrad, I was a philosophy major and I was taking some psychology courses. I took a neuro-biology of learning and memory course, loved it, the professor then asked me to work in his lab which I decided to do. Two weeks after I started working in the lab, I said “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life” and that’s what I’ve been doing for the rest of my life. I didn’t take another philosophy class, I jumped ship, and took just neuroscience and psychology courses even though I was only two classes shy of completing the philosophy major. Yeah, I’ve been working on that ever since—the research I started doing as an undergrad is what I’m still doing now which is studying the brain basis of spatial memory, how our brains’ code the environments that we traverse, how this information is used to guide our actions of, say, getting from one place to another based on our memory of locations we’ve been to before. All this is done in rodent models using in vido electrophysiology.
What is your favorite part about research? (Learning new things you didn’t expect, presenting the information at conferences, the writing process, etc.)
My absolute favorite thing, not just in research but in life, is recording from neurons. The actual activity of sitting there and then absorbing and listening to neuroactivity while an animal engages in some behavior is my favorite thing in the world and has been ever since I first started. That’s what got me hooked on all of this. When you are recording from a neuron in the brain, we can translate that to an auditory signal so we can listen to action potentials while sitting there and watching as an animal engages in some behavior. Then listening to the activity of a single cell in that animal’s brain, and being able to relate what the animal is doing to what we are hearing and seeing in terms of the cell’s activity is just so immensely fun to me.
What made the University of Illinois a good place to conduct your research?
I came out and loved all the people that I’ve met, which ultimately is one of the most important things, the people you have the opportunity to work with. It was very clear that across the university there are all the resources to do the research but ultimately all the universities have resources in terms of materials and lab space. But being able to work with nice supportive people really sealed the deal.
Why are you interested in Spatial coding?
I love being able to relate neural activity to some easily observable either behavior or observable behavior. Space is a very easy conceivable one. We inhabit it, everything that we have ever done has occurred in it, and it’s very tangible. It makes it easy to think about, I guess. I know that makes me sound like I’m studying something simplistic, but that’s fine. That really is what it comes down to; it’s a clear variable, I can easily understand it and relate neural activity to it.
Can you talk about a time where were greatly challenged?
I’ve talked about this a few times since I’ve actually been here. So, the work I started during my post-doctoral fellowship is very challenging work. Yeah, you basically fail every day and then interspersed amongst all those failures are little tiny successes, but ultimately over the course of the project I did collect all the data, still, the publication process was incredibly challenging. We submitted it and got some very challenging reviews back from the reviewers and it was sort of going through that process that... Yeah, it was one of the few times during my career where I really questioned whether I wanted to be doing this type of work. Ultimately, we completed that paper. It a quite a successful paper but it was very challenging and it was just very fortunate that the project after that one was really a lot of fun. So I sort of had this nice contrast and it brought me back to what I enjoy doing and what I enjoy so much about science. I think if I had a follow-up project that was also very challenging, personally, or just scientifically, I don’t know if I would have stuck with it all.
What do you do in your spare time?
I very much enjoy cooking. Mostly just cooking and watching TV. I don’t really have any hobbies. Definitely on the weekends I like to spend several hours cooking an elaborate-ish meal.
What’s a fact about you that people don’t expect to learn?
I took time off during undergrad and I worked for a number of years as a baker. So, I have extensive experience baking, particularly breads!
If someone in the program, a student or a colleague, needed to refer to you but did not know your name, how would you prefer for them to describe you?
I don’t know. For right now, I just say “That New Guy.” Whatever is most effective.