Annual Message from Our PhD Program Director

-February 3, 2021-

Michael Silver

Michael Silver
Director, Neuroscience PhD Program (2017-present)
Professor of Optometry and Vision Science and Neuroscience

In a year marked by a global pandemic, widespread social unrest, attacks on our country’s democratic institutions, and orange skies, I have been inspired by the Berkeley Neuroscience community’s resilience, perseverance, and generosity. Some of us have been unable to set foot on campus for nearly a year, while others must conduct experiments in the middle of the night to comply with person density limits in research space.

However, in the midst of a dark year, there have been many beacons of light in our graduate program. Some Berkeley neuroscientists have completely changed the focus of their research to better understand the biology of SARS-CoV-2, our graduate students have put tremendous energy into social activism to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion in our communities, and our beloved program staff members Natalie Terranova and Candace Groskreutz sent care packages to all of our sheltering-in-place graduate students. During this time of extraordinary uncertainty, I am grateful for the thoughtful and compassionate leadership of Chancellor Carol Christ and Dean of the Graduate Division Lisa García Bedolla.

A coronavirus, shown as a gray ball covered with protruding red triangles.

This year also brought many triumphs and successes in research for our students and faculty, including the appointment of John Ngai as the Director of the NIH Brain Initiative, the awarding of the Gruber Neuroscience Prize to Corey Goodman, the naming of Stephen Brohawn as a Sloan Research Fellow, the installation of the NexGen 7-Tesla MRI scanner in our Brain Imaging Center, the founding of the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, the awarding of a Glushko Dissertation Prize to program alumnus Falk Lieder, and the naming of Matt Davis as a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellow.

There were also several notable achievements and advances by Berkeley neuroscientists in the areas of teaching and mentoring this year. Marla Feller was one of only four Berkeley faculty members to receive the Distinguished Teaching Award, and Holly Gildea and Tobias Schmid were honored with Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Awards. In addition, Matt Walker received the Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization.

Our graduate program partnered with the University of Nevada, Reno to obtain an R25 BP-ENDURE grant from the NIH that will enable underrepresented minority students to conduct mentored research in neuroscience labs at UC Berkeley every summer. In December, we held the first annual mentor training for our faculty and “mentoring up” training for our students and postdocs. This mentor training, conducted by expert facilitators from the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research, is now required for all faculty in the Neuroscience PhD program.

Hearty congratulations to the students that successfully obtained their PhD in Neuroscience in the middle of a pandemic: Jenna Adams, Zeke Barger, Jocelyn Breton, Franklin Caval-Holme, Adam Eichenbaum, Malak El-Quessny, and Charles Frye. You can read a Q&A with those students who graduated in Spring 2020 here. While we were unable to celebrate with our graduating students in person this year, the virtual thesis symposia enabled many friends and family from around the world to participate and to honor our graduates.

Incoming Class of 2020Our incoming Class of 2020 has been faced with unprecedented challenges in moving to a new city, becoming oriented to UC Berkeley and the neuroscience community, and carrying out lab rotations. I admire our first-year students for their ability to navigate through these obstacles and to establish connection in this time of isolation. They have shown great creativity in organizing virtual events to become acquainted with each other and the rest of the Berkeley Neuroscience community, and many of them have made substantial contributions to program activities, including planning of virtual recruitment/interview “visits” for applicants to our program.

Yvette Fisher and Doris TsaoWe also extend a warm virtual welcome to new faculty members Yvette Fisher and Doris Tsao. Both of them were honored last year: Yvette was named a Next Generation Leader at the Allen Institute, and Doris was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Congratulations, Yvette and Doris – we are delighted to have you as new colleagues, mentors, and members of our neuroscience community!

To Yvette, Doris, and our first-year students Natalie Bernstein, Zhongyan Gong, Laura Haetzel, Nancy Hernández Villegas, Eric Hu, Christopher Kymn, Amanda LeBel, Vivian Lu, Samira Maboudian, Maura McDonagh, Ben Parker, and Miah Pitcher, we look forward to giving you a proper welcome when it is safe to do so, and we are excited to get to know you better over the coming years.

In spite of the forces that are keeping us apart, I believe that the Berkeley Neuroscience community is more united than ever, and it will be a joyful day when we are all able to see each other in our labs (and in the Granlibakken ski cabin) again. Until then, stay strong and be safe!