The following is part of the Neuroscientist Portrait Project, a look at the lives of neuroscientists inside vs. outside of the lab with an emphasis on highlighting the stories of those who are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. Created by Christine Liu and sponsored by Berkeley Neuroscience. All photos by Reynaldo Cayetano Jr. The portrait below was originally published as part of a zine in November 2016. Read the full zine here.
I study mammalian vocal learning, using bats as a model species to understand the circuits that underlie the ability to learn vocalizations. I combine neuroethology with modern electrophysiology and calcium imaging techniques to observe how cortical and subcortical areas work as a system to facilitate learned changes in behavior.
How did you get interested in neuroscience research?
I started traveling at a young age and loved learning new languages to be able to connect with people. I became fascinated with how our individual perspective could drastically change depending on the language we speak via the meaning we give to abstract sounds. I wanted to understand how the brain works as a biological system to encode these sounds and give us a very personal, yet shared representation of the world.
Why did you choose UC Berkeley for your PhD studies?
I chose the Berkeley Neuroscience PhD Program because it stands on the forefront of scientific and personal discovery. The opportunity to pursue my dream research projects in an environment that promotes revolutionary scientific thinking alongside progressive personal development makes this place perfect for me. I appreciate the balance. The hardest part of being a scientist may be learning to say no. Truly, the vast resources and abundance of opportunities to explore inside and outside the lab can make your head swim. Though the bureaucracy appears to pose a challenge to scientific freedoms at times, it seems that it is always possible to succeed as a scientist and as a person.
Who are you in the lab? Who are you outside of the lab?
I try to be myself inside and outside of the lab. In the lab, I enjoy the hours I spend intensely focusing on trying to solve my research problems. Clothing-wise, I’m actually fairly boring when in lab. I can’t be bothered with making decisions so I wear the exact same clothes every day. However, I also try to incorporate my outside life into my time in the lab. I get very excited by my work and my hobbies, and I hope to be able to share that excitement with those around me. Outside of the lab, I like to disconnect from the fast pace of lab life. I like to escape to nature as a creative space to allow my thoughts to mature. Whether looking into my microscope, surfing at Ocean Beach, or dancing in the city, I enjoy the thrill of new experiences and novel waves of discovery.
What story does your non-lab photo tell?
My non-lab photo is meant provoke others to question, ‘Who is this person really?’ I like to explore the stereotypes that people box themselves into and demonstrate to others that you can jump across many boundaries, while still remaining true to yourself. If one were to base their judgement of who I am on only one of my photos, they may end up at completely opposite conclusions. However, it is the diversity of my past experiences in combination with my current interests in life that make me Tobias, not my lab coat nor my tutu.
When did you start dressing up in unique outfits? How do you choose the outfits?
I was fortunate throughout my life that my family was always very supportive of my personal styles and choices. I can distinctly pinpoint two experiences as an undergraduate at the University of Florida that precipitated my joy for wearing funky outfits: hiking with a group of goofball friends along the Appalachian Trail and attending Burning Man. I learned that dressing up in these outfits allowed me to become an entirely new character in the eyes other people I met, accompanied by different expectations of who I was. However, I am really just the same me. I choose the outfits depending on who I think I will be spending time with. I like to use my creativity in styles to push others’ preconceived notions of what is normal.
Why do you like to dress up?
Why do people NOT like to dress up???? It’s just fun to create new avenues for communication simply because of the clothes I’m wearing. I treat my outfits a little bit like wearable art, which may induce responses in people I come across. Not everybody has to like what I’m wearing, but they can’t help but form some sort of immediate judgment (good or bad) upon seeing the outfit on me. I like to force people to question their superficial reactions when they are confronted with how I look on the outside and how I connect with them through our interactions.
How are you different from the rest of the scientific community? How do people react to those differences?
I am just me. I’m a little bit weird, a little bit wild, and never afraid to push comfort levels. I like to take risks to allow myself to grow inside and outside the lab. Despite different attitudes or interests, I try my best in everything and like to go about my work with a smile, which I believe helps break down any walls of judgment.
What is your background? Tell me a story about yourself.
I was born in Switzerland to an Italian father and English mother. After living in Switzerland and England, I moved to Florida where I spent many of my formative years. Reflecting back, I believe that my unique childhood experiences living and traveling with my family across cultures helped me develop into the well-rounded person that I try to be. I was always the weird European kid with an accent while in high school in Florida. Now, despite the fact that I look and sound American, I still don’t feel entirely American at heart. Yet, the Europeans consider me to be the weird American. I think my cross-cultural upbringing enabled me to become the resilient person that I am today, adapting between different environments and outfits while staying me at my core.
Describe challenges you have over-come to get to where you are now.
Haters gonna hate but I’ve got the drive to make it happen.
What challenges are you currently facing? How do you overcome those challenges?
I feel very lucky that my main challenges currently are my science. I am challenged each day to notice the small insights that may reveal the next solution to my research question. As I am early in my career, I do feel the challenge of having to prove myself to my colleagues through my dedication and my results. I’m excited to face this challenge over the next few years but it’s pretty scary at the moment.
Who are your best supporters? How do you try to support others?
My best supporters are my friends and family. My family has always been supportive of letting me make my own decisions for my career and my life choices, which gave me the confidence to achieve whatever I wanted. I am also very fortunate to be surrounded by a strong group of friends who are there for me daily to hear the good and bad. I try to support others by listening to their ideas and trying to instill in them the confidence that they can make their thoughts become a reality. I love focusing on the positive and working towards our goals together.
How can we do better as a scientific community?
I think we can always stand to try to become more understanding of our peers’ perspectives. Each member of the lab community comes from a different background with unique technical and personal skill sets. I think that developing more empathy for our colleagues could facilitate better collaboration and ultimately help us solve our research questions more effectively.
Describe a moment when you felt victorious.
A moment sticks out to me while I was cycle touring in Africa in 2012. It was my last day in Malawi and I wanted to try to cross over the mountainous border into Zambia before nightfall. I fought up one endless climb aft er another but a cold rain and a brutal headwind all day were intent on making my life miserable. I persevered against cold wet feet, saddle sores, and utter physical exhaustion, managing to reach the border as the sun went down just minutes before it closed; access granted into a new country! The serene victory of reaching the peak, and pushing onwards into new territory in the pitch black of night, sticks with me when I approach personal and professional problems today.
Do you feel like you need to change how you present yourself when in the lab or amongst colleagues? Why or why not?
I recognize that the lab is a professional environment where I must respect that others are focused on their research. I try not to create distractions for myself nor those around me. As such, I do try to tone down my clothing choices and lessen the provocation during lab hours. However, I still try to stay myself when I am amongst my colleagues because it’s important to impassion others with the joie de vivre.
What does it mean to be able to express yourself freely?
To me, it means being able to do and say as I feel without fear of repercussion. I like to say what comes to my mind and I feel very lucky that I can (respectfully) express my thoughts without worrying what others think of me.
By being yourself, have you improved freedom of expression of people around you?
I hope so. I try to lead by example to show others that you can be as exactly who you want to be, on your own terms. I hope to break through that awkward space so that my peers feel comfortable expressing their own point of view too. We’ll have to ask them.
Any words of wisdom? Do you have any advice for others?
Follow your heart. I believe in the wisdom of intuition and doing what feels right. On my great-great-aunty Flo’s 97th birthday, I asked her for one life lesson she learned that kept her so happy. She said to always do exactly what feels right to you, that way you’ll have no regrets at the end because you were able to do what you wanted to do. I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to put that advice into practice every day.
Tobias Schmid is a Berkeley Neuroscience PhD Program student in Michael Yartsev’s lab. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow.