Published in: Berkeley Neuroscience News | July 25th, 2017

Congratulations to our graduates! From left to right, starting on the top row: Shawn Marks, Joe Driscoll, Brian Isett, Chris Holdgraf, Yvonne Fonken, Anna Vlasits, Ryan Neely, and Sam Israel. Not pictured: Sam Harding-Forrester, Natalia Bilenko and Levi Gadye.  Read on to learn their reflections, future plans, and words of advice.

Joseph Driscoll

Fields and Kriegsfeld Labs

Thesis Title: “The duality of stress: Effects of Corticotrophin Releasing Factor on Ventral Tegmental Area Neurons”

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?
The stress related signaling molecule CRF can fundamentally alter the signaling properties of the Kappa Opioid receptor system in VTA neurons. Meaning that stress signaling molecules have a much more complex relationship in inducing relapse behaviors then what was originally thought.

What are you doing next?
Taking an industry postdoc at BlackThorn Therapeutics.

Do you have any advice for your fellow students?
Every failure is an opportunity, the more you fail in graduate school and learn from it the better scientist you will ultimately become.

Yvonne Fonken

Knight Lab

Thesis title: “Auditory prediction and motor control”

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?
That the auditory cortex is recruited when expected sounds are omitted. In other words, the auditory cortex becomes active to a lack of sound! This is a very exciting finding, as it not only provides additional evidence of context affecting sensory processing, it also isolates these contextual effects from bottom-up processing of a stimulus.

What are you doing next?
I will be starting a post-doc position with Kia Nobre at Oxford University. Here, I will focus on the role the human hippocampus plays in setting up short- and long-term expectations.

Do you have any advice for your fellow students?
Set a deadline for you dissertation, but also don’t be afraid to delay the deadline if you have to. There is always more work to do, but at some point you just have to finish that little book.

Chris Holdgraf

Knight Lab

Thesis title: “Predictive models of auditory perception in human electrophysiology”

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?
That the brain’s auditory system is extremely dynamic, and is constantly trying to leverage its previous experience with the auditory world in order to ease its subsequent experience in perceiving sound.

What are you doing next?
I’ll be a fellow at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, where I’ll get to zoom out a bit and work on tools and practices for making science more productive, efficient, and accessible. I’ll also be a post-doc with Bob Knight finishing up projects on encoding models with electrocorticography data, and trying to work on releasing some ECoG datasets.

Do you have any advice for your fellow students?
Always have a 1-week, 3-month, and 3-year plan, and don’t hesitate to update those plans as circumstances change. Don’t forget to zoom out and look at the big picture – it’s easy to get tunnel vision in science. Finally, resist the urge to close ranks and jealously guard your ideas, data, and skills – being collaborative and open pays off in the long run even if it means taking a few hits along the way.

Brian Isett

Feldman Lab

Thesis title: “Simultaneous coding of microscopic and macroscopic features of touch in mouse somatosensory cortex”

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?
The most interesting thing we discovered was that surface shape could be coded by the same elemental tactile features that code texture in the whisker system: discrete micromotions called ‘stick-slips.’ As far as we know, this is the first time neural responses during active touch could be used to recover tactile object shapes.

What are you doing next?
Scientifically: the plan is to submit 2 manuscripts in the next 6 months with Dan. After that: I am not entirely sure! I am casting a wide net and am currently interviewing for irresistible post doc positions, data science jobs, and neuroscience industry jobs. I am also in the process of self-publishing a book of poetry/design I’ve worked on with a collaborator the last few years and I’m excited to see that completed and to start promoting it a bit.

Do you have any advice for your fellow students?
A lot of stuff won’t work, so perseverance goes a long way. But also make time to explore course work and Bay Area opportunities that can expand your skill sets, comfort zones, and career options. Self-reflection on what is and isn’t working, or what you do and do not like about your work can really help clarify your priorities.

Sam Israel

Ngai Lab

Thesis title: “Characterization of a Novel Population of Olfactory Neurons”

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here? 
I discovered a new type of olfactory sensory neuron in the zebrafish olfactory epithelium.

What are you doing next?
Science Communication.

Do you have any advice for your fellow students? 
Keep investigating other interests outside of research. It will give you more life balance and prepare you for a career after you graduate.

Ryan Neely

Carmena Lab

Thesis title: “Brain-Machine Interface solutions for probing learning in neural circuits”

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?  
Cortical neurons can be trained to do all kinds of new things- even virtual actions!

What are you doing next?
Working for a neurotechnology startup- Iota biosciences.

Do you have any advice for your fellow students? 
Take the time to learn some totally new skills while you’re here- there are so many smart people doing interesting things and you never know where it will take you.

Anna Vlasits

Feller Lab

Thesis title: “Excitatory Inputs to Starburst Amacrine Cells: Adaptation, Computations, Development”

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?
I discovered that not all neurons operate the way I learned in textbooks. The brain is full of weird cells that do different jobs – it’s not just passing a message onto the next cell in the chain, but things like figuring out a particular sequence, turning up the volume on certain information compared to others, or in my thesis, figuring out the direction of moving objects. I studied starburst amacrine cells, which looks like a firework and lives in our retinas. These cells have really thin dendrites snaking out of them, and those dendrites both receive and send information in their circuit. It means that individual dendrites can act separately from one another, with distinct dendrites in the same cell acting as motion detectors for movement in different directions. Evolution has created tons of weird cells like this that can do different jobs, and we’re just starting to figure out what jobs they do and how the cells work. It’s very beautiful.

What are you doing next?
I am working as a journalist at WIRED magazine right now, then moving to Germany this summer with my son and husband, where I’ll be working as a journalist covering European science for English-speaking audiences.

Do you have any advice for your fellow students?
Don’t be afraid to explore how you can use your science knowledge for pursuits outside of the traditional career paths. Do you like to teach? Design a DeCal course or teach in the summer. Are you an artist or musician? Find a community and keep doing your art. Are you a wordsmith? Do what I did! Join a poetry workshop or write for a student publication. Nurturing all of your skills while you get your PhD means that the two disciplines can start to intermingle and inform one another, enriching your experience, providing an outlet for stress, and possibly leading to a career that marries your passions.

View previous: Q&A with the 2016 Neuroscience PhD Program Graduates