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Q&A with the 2021 Neuroscience PhD Program graduates

Congratulations to our recent and upcoming Neuroscience PhD Program graduates: Jenna Adams, Adam Eichenbaum, Malak Y. El-Quessny, Vael Gates, Irene Grossrubatscher, Colin Hoy, Christine Liu, Sean Mackesey, Melissa Lynn Newton, Sara Popham, Tobias Schmid, and Gregory I. Telian!

Read our Q&A with them below to learn about their most interesting discoveries, future plans, and words of advice.

Jenna Adams

Jenna Adams

Jenna Adams, Jagust lab

Thesis: Tau pathology is associated with neural activity and connectivity in aging and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease 

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

The most interesting discovery resulting from my dissertation research was support for a bidirectional relationship between neural activity/connectivity and tau pathology during the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Initially, patterns of stronger neural activity and connectivity guide tau deposition and spread. Ultimately, high levels of tau pathology then lead to neural dysfunction and altered connectivity.

What are you doing next?

After graduating in December, I started a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Michael Yassa at UC Irvine to continue investigating tau pathology in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. More specifically, I plan to study how tau pathology relates to hippocampal subfield dysfunction during memory processing and ultimately leads to memory decline.

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

My advice for incoming students would be to consider not only the science, but the mentorship quality when selecting your dissertation lab. I was fortunate to have a very supportive mentor who genuinely cared about my success, which made graduate school a much more rewarding experience. Also, make sure to prioritize a work-life balance — your science will only improve if you’re happy outside of the lab as well! 


 

Adam Eichenbaum

Adam Eichenbaum

Adam Eichenbaum, D’Esposito lab

Thesis: The neural bases of individual differences in complex cognition and behavior

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

My first major project focused on how people learn to build internal models of their world based only on Correct / Incorrect feedback signals. People were remarkably capable of behaving according to complex, hidden rule structures, even though they may not have been fully consciously aware of these rules. It was found that these behaviors were supported by a coordinated set of activity patterns distributed across common multi-region brain networks. 

What are you doing next?

I will be working as a Quantitative User Experience Researcher at Google. 

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

Never feel like you have to solve a problem alone. Reach out to as many people as you can, even if they’re in a different lab or are a world-famous scientist. Also, do not underestimate Candace Groskreutz. She is the program’s most valuable resource. Speak to her as much as you need to, she is truly invaluable to have in your corner. 


 

Malak Y. El-Quessny

Malak Y. El-Quessny, Feller lab

Thesis: The role of dendrites in the organization of the neural circuits for motion detection in the retina

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

When we think of a neuron’s dendrites, especially in sensory circuits, we usually think of how the shape or “morphology” gives us insight into how a neuron is wired up, and who it’s presynaptic partners are. I discovered that, in the retina, dendritic morphology only gives you some clues about the probability of a neuron’s wiring within a circuit, especially if it has an asymmetric morphology. Otherwise, I found that dendrite morphology does not necessarily dictate or even spatially restrict a neuron’s presynaptic partners and spatial receptive field.

What are you doing next?

I am moving to Barcelona to start a postdoc at the Institute for Photonic Sciences (ICFO).

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

What we find, through our intensive efforts as scientists, has always been there — nature has been there — waiting for us to uncover its infinite secrets. Nature does not discriminate between gender, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic class, so if you are here, know that you belong here. The policies that make you doubt that for a moment are what is unnatural. You deserve to be here. You deserve to explore your own creativity in your science and to do what you love unwaveringly. 


 

Vael Gates

Vael Gates

Vael Gates, Computational Cognitive Science Lab (Tom Griffiths, formerly at Berkeley) 

Thesis: Formalizing and testing computational cognitive models of social collaboration

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

I’ve loved learning about the breadth of psychological phenomena that computational cognitive models can be applied to. I’ve also really appreciated learning about the potential long-term risks of artificial intelligence, and potential solutions. In one of my projects that touches on both of these strands, we studied what people think a third party should do when trying to choose an option for people with different preferences. We found that participants’ behavior was best described by the “maximin” metric, describing the desire to maximize the happiness of the worst-off person. I think this general approach, of trying to empirically determine what human values are, can be a useful starting point for thinking about what kind of behavior we want in AI decision-makers.

What are you doing next?

I’m excited to be a postdoc at Stanford HAI (Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence) and CISAC (Center for International Security and Cooperation). I’ll likely be conducting an ethnography of AI researchers, which feels like a really cool and interesting project. 

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

It’s a long road, during some excellent life years! Since I expect grad students are generally motivated to work, my advice is to explore and enjoy yourself as much as possible — see what the rest of campus, Berkeley, and beyond has to offer. I wrote up some reflections from my PhD; I hope you too find wacky and fun experiences.


 

Irene Grossrubatscher

Irene Grossrubatscher, Isacoff lab

Thesis: The role of the forebrain in larval zebrafish prey capture

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

My research explored how previous experience with prey affected hunting behavior in the zebrafish larva. I accrued evidence for the hypothesis that plasticity at the level of the habenula, a brain area that is conserved across vertebrates, may mediate an experience-dependent increase in prey capture initiation. A lowering of the threshold for a prey sighting to trigger a motor hunting sequence may underlie the increase in capture behavior, and this may describe a general mechanism by which experience shapes decision-making in vertebrates.

What are you doing next?

I will start working as a life sciences consultant at a consulting firm in San Francisco in the fall, and I am excited to apply my scientific training to guide strategic decisions for biotech companies, which will ultimately lead to progress in health care.

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

Graduate school is a very special time of discovery and learning. The independent navigation of this journey can at times feel a bit scary and overwhelming. In those moments, I would suggest a positive interpretation and see being completely responsible for all decisions and progress as empowering, since this freedom is rare in other fields.


 

Colin Hoy

Colin Hoy, Knight lab

Thesis: Electrophysiological signatures of conflict and surprise in the human brain

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

Achieving a goal requires predicting which actions will lead to the desired outcome, and the brain updates these predictions based on surprise. My thesis focuses on teasing apart neural representations of general surprise from reward-specific surprise. I sought to use the high resolution of rare recordings from inside the brains of epilepsy patients to study surprise in medial and lateral prefrontal cortex, two regions famous for their role in learning and decision making. Surprisingly, these two signals appeared together in a region called the insula before prefrontal cortex, suggesting a potential leading role for this lesser known region!

What are you doing next?

I’ll be joining Drs. Simon Little and Philip Starr at UCSF as a postdoc studying motivation in Parkinson’s disease patients implanted with chronic deep brain stimulation devices. My work will address the lesser known cognitive and emotional changes in these patients by tailoring closed-loop stimulation based on neural signals associated with reward and effort. I will also study the ethics of brain implants and stimulation with Dr. Winston Chiong to assess the impact of these devices on patients, caregivers, clinicians, and communities.

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

Science is only one part of your life, so be sure to prioritize whatever hobbies, activities, or communities outside of lab that make you happy. Finishing a research project takes a long time, so don’t wait for the big milestones — celebrate the little things! Lastly, always remember to look at your data.


 

Christine Liu

Christine Liu. Photo by Rulan Yi.

Christine Liu, Lammel lab

Thesis: Characterizing nicotine’s effects on the midbrain dopamine system

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

Nicotine, like other addictive drugs, is known to increase dopamine signaling to promote feelings of reward. However, at high doses, nicotine causes unpleasant feelings and becomes aversive. I found that a high, aversive dose of nicotine inhibits the canonical dopamine reward pathway and simultaneously activates a distinct dopamine pathway that responds to aversive stimuli. Untangling the cellular and circuit level mechanisms that give rise to these divergent effects was a fun puzzle that taught me to embrace the complexity of the brain.

What are you doing next?

I’ll be looking for opportunities to continue growing as a scientist and artist after I complete my project!

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

Feed your curiosity. The joy of exploration and experimentation is probably what led you to science, but rough patches are inevitable in your journey. Continue nurturing your creativity and critical thinking when they’re not being fulfilled by your experiments. A PhD is a wonderful time to explore your own brain and grow in all kinds of directions!


 

Sean Mackesey

Sean Mackesey

Sean Mackesey, Sommer lab

Thesis: Improving scientific hypermedia and executable publishing: LFP decoding in the hippocampus

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

Simple, high-level simulations of large neural populations can produce outputs with surprisingly similar statistical structure to the measured output from real and vastly more complex neural circuits.

What are you doing next?

I will be taking some time to study smart contracts and the Ethereum blockchain. I’ll probably then seek employment as a developer for the Ethereum ecosystem. Ultimately I hope to circle back to science, perhaps working on projects that use decentralized web infrastructure to experiment with new models of scientific funding model or publication. That and raising my 5-month-old daughter Molly!

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

You really, really shouldn’t procrastinate when preparing for quals. 


 

Melissa Lynn Newton

Melissa Lynn Newton

Melissa Lynn Newton, Kayser lab

Thesis: Neural correlates of decision-making in human parietal cortex

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

Human parietal cortex mirrors some aspects of frontal cortex in its representation of abstract information, like goals and situational contexts.

What are you doing next?

Teaching in a number of potential capacities, either as an adjunct faculty member at a 2- or 4-year college or through an educational outreach organization.

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

Develop the skill of being in dialogue with your self-doubts, because this is what will help you push through imposter syndrome. Accept that you will feel lost as part of the process of creation, and it’s okay when that feeling returns. Always keep working for a more inclusive, more equitable scientific community despite the barriers in society. You belong here, especially if you are “different”. I was very fortunate to have an advisor that was supportive and consistently communicative. If you can’t have weekly meetings with your advisor, then I encourage you to find an additional mentor to meet frequently with, whether it is a faculty member or post-doc or more senior grad student. There are many safety hazards in all work environments, and my past research experiences have informed me that wet labs are no exception. Remember to always protect yourself from work hazards and advocate for safety measures in your protocols. Align your time and actions with the reality that your mental and physical health will always be your highest priority — ignore the inner voice that says your research is most important. Your research is not your identity, so it’s okay when it isn’t going well. Consistently verbalize your feelings via professional counseling and with friends. Stay hydrated, stay woke, and say “no” when you are overburdened. You got this!


 

Sara Popham

Sara Popham

Sara Popham, Gallant lab

Thesis: Investigating the relationships between semantic representations in the human brain

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

I came into grad school with a desire to understand the links between various unimodal representations, so I took on a project that made use of two existing independent datasets from my lab. One experiment had used silent movies as stimuli and the other used narrative stories. After building models of how semantic information was represented in each modality separately, I was able to spatially compare those two maps of semantic selectivity. I found that along a boundary near the border of the visual cortex, there was a clear transition between these two maps: for visual categories represented posterior to the boundary, the same categories are represented linguistically on the anterior side. It turned out that these two networks were smoothly joined to form one contiguous map!

What are you doing next?

I’ll be finishing up my PhD by the end of the summer, and I am currently seeking employment as a Data Scientist in industry, but definitely staying in the Bay Area!  

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

Be flexible. Very, very flexible. I spent years thinking I was studying one phenomenon, and struggled to make sense of data that didn’t even come close to answering the questions I wanted to ask. But as soon as I collected data that I had long thought would be completely uninteresting, suddenly everything started to fall into place, and I was able to figure out what to do to wrap everything up. 


 

Tobias Schmid

Tobias Schmid, Yartsev lab

Thesis: Neural underpinnings of vocal communication and spatial navigation behaviors in Egyptian fruit bats

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

When you are driving down a familiar path on your daily commute, do neurons in your brain encode your surroundings the same way from day to day? Egyptian fruit bats are expert aerial navigators that use their hippocampus to form an internal representation of space as they fly around their environment. We used custom wireless miniature microscopes to longitudinally record fluorescent calcium imaging activity from hippocampal CA1 neurons as bats flew around foraging for food. We discovered that the neural activity was remarkably stable over days, and we found that the variance of the neurons from day to day was due to behavioral drift rather than neural plasticity. It turns out, we think that your internal map of the world does not change very much and this stability may help you travel without getting lost.

What are you doing next?

I am currently exploring options for entrepreneurial fellowships with a biotech venture capital firm. Fingers crossed!

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

Don’t stop trying when you fail, pivot.


 

Gregory I. Telian

Gregory I. Telian

Gregory I. Telian, Adesnik lab

Thesis: Sensory coding and modulation in the whisker motor and sensory cortex

What is the most interesting thing you discovered in your research here?

Sensory activity informs the brain about the environment, which allows motor areas to shape appropriate movements. In mice, whisker sensory information is sent from somatosensory cortex (vS1) to motor cortex (vM1). It was thought that the sensory activity in vM1 was weak and completely driven by vS1. I found that sensory activity in the motor cortex is represented with robust spiking activity and has similar properties to the somatosensory cortex. The most interesting thing about this is that the sensory activity is not driven by somatosensory cortex, instead, it is modulated by it. This shaping fine tunes the activity in vM1, producing a more accurate representation of the stimulus. 

What are you doing next?

I will be starting a postdoc with Mazen Kheirbek, PhD at UCSF this summer. I will be studying how hippocampal networks represent and distribute information across its network of interconnected brain regions.

Do you have any advice for incoming or current students?

Pace yourself during grad school. Be patient and kind to yourself. Try to keep work life and home life separate. This way you can truly rest and incorporate what you learned after a full workday. If possible, try to keep to a set work schedule, making sure not to work past your allotted time. This will help prevent burnout and lead to better quality work. Take care of yourself.

View all Neuroscience PhD Program graduate Q&As.