5 Questions with a Neurobiologist
You study the molecular origins of sensory circuits. Why?
Early in my career I had the opportunity to be involved in curiosity-driven research that showed relevance to human disease. I was excited to think that I could understand something fundamental about the way the nervous system is put together and have that understanding help people. I still like to straddle those worlds.
I also really like to work on sensory systems that animals use, so that we can actually link what’s happening at the circuit level to the way an animal is using that information.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work?
I thoroughly enjoy the prospect of discovery. I’ve always been excited to find out if what was set up yesterday is going to work out tomorrow. I don’t even mind when things don’t work because then we’ve learned we can do something in a different way. But what I find the most rewarding is the chance to share in the successes of all the wonderful people in my lab. That’s what motivates me even more than the discoveries we make.
What was your most recent eureka moment?
I’ve had eureka moments, but if I lived for those, it wouldn’t sustain me as a scientist. That’s not the way science works, and we shouldn’t put so much emphasis on those moments. We need to respect the slow, steady progress that comes with putting the pieces together. We should define our successes by whether we believe the outcome of the experiment, not whether the hypothesis was correct.
If you could change one thing about the current scientific enterprise, what would it be?
I feel that sometimes the structure in which we’re trying to do science is not best suited for it. We get caught up in the grind of getting papers out and getting promotions and all those things. It frustrates me when that structure gets in the way of discovery or of sharing the truth. There is science with a small s and science with a big S. All of us went into this for science with a capital S. We want to understand the way the world works, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
What is your advice to young scientists starting out today?
Be flexible in terms of how you’re doing an experiment and how you’re thinking about the results, but also in terms of your own path. As people go through their training, they’re still young and learning, they’re experiencing the world differently. I don’t think they should feel like they’ve made a mistake or failed if, at the end of graduate school, they don’t want to do the same thing they came in wanting to do. I tell them to look for things that take full advantage of their natural strengths instead of spending all their time trying to get better at things they’re not good at. Yes, you have to improve, but you shouldn’t let your natural strengths wither while doing that.
Ekaterina Pesheva is the director of science communications and media relations in the HMS Office of Communications and External Relations.
Image: John Soares