5 Early Career Scientists on Why They Love Neuroscience

Graduate Students and Postdocs Share What They Do Inside and Outside of the Lab

Early career researchers bring important insights and innovations to science. Students and postdoctoral fellows are major contributors to advances in technology and computational biology approaches that help accelerate scientific discovery and open new doors to our understanding of how disease progresses.

Students and postdocs are a critical part of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Neurodegeneration Challenge Network, which brings together experimental scientists from diverse research fields, along with computational biologists and physicians, to understand the fundamental biology of neurodegenerative disorders. Their shared goal is to develop new strategies for the treatment and prevention of neurodegenerative diseases.

CZI seeks to empower early career researchers, including students and postdocs, to pursue bold ideas and to take risks within the Network’s supportive environment. We believe that providing creative opportunities for students and postdocs to learn, collaborate, and build communities around science is necessary for future advances that will finally lead to cures for neurodegenerative diseases.

Hear from five of our Challenge Network postdocs and graduate students who are working to advance what we know about neurodegenerative diseases:

Graduate student Caley Burrus studies synapse development and neurodegeneration. Caley completed her undergraduate degree at Duke University.

“I realized I wanted to spend my life learning more about neuroscience and trying to find treatments for neurological diseases.” — Graduate student Caley Burrus

A graduate student in Cagla Eroglu’s laboratory, Caley Burrus studies synapse development and neurodegeneration. Specifically, she studies the role of huntingtin (the protein mutated in Huntington’s Disease) in synaptic connectivity and neuronal health.

What drew you to neuroscience research?

I first became interested in neuroscience and medicine because of my cousin, who has severe autism. Later, when I was in high school, my AP Psychology teacher showed us a video of a little girl who underwent a hemispherectomy to treat Rasmussen’s encephalitis. I was blown away by the plasticity and resiliency of children’s brains.

What do you think is the coolest thing happening in this field?

I am fascinated by the wealth of new findings on how non-neuronal cells (especially astrocytes and microglia) impact synapse formation and elimination. Increasing our knowledge of these fundamental processes will be critical to fully understand and treat neurological and psychiatric diseases.

What do you do for fun?

I really enjoy staying active by running, hiking, and going to the gym. One of my favorite graduate school memories was doing a Spartan obstacle course race with several of my labmates. I also love to travel and learn about new places and cultures.

Postdoc Amit Kumar Chouhan studies mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s disease.

Amit Kumar Chouhan, a postdoc in Patrik Verstreken’s laboratory, studies mechanisms underlying Parkinson’s disease using patient-derived stem cells. Amit completed his masters degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington and a postgraduate degree in neuroscience from the University of St. Andrews.

What excites you about neuroscience research?

I am passionate about making a difference in the lives of people suffering from diseases. For me, neuroscience research is a privilege that goes far beyond any job or career, and it enables me to share the responsibility of helping patients who are suffering from neurological disease.

What tool or resource would make your research life easier?

An open-source data/protocol sharing platform similar to protocols.io that highlights non-published negative data and experimental results would be tremendously beneficial. Scientific experiments for many similar projects involve multiple rounds of trial and testing (for example, neuron differentiation optimization, complex cloning, and molecule testing), which are repeated within different labs and companies.

This results in a significant loss of time and resources for each research group and slows the overall speed of scientific discoveries. An open source data/protocol sharing resource will help minimize this loss by sharing the experimental results and experiences of students and postdocs who carried them out.

What do you do for fun?

I am passionate about taking science outside research labs to the public. Towards this end, I am actively involved with public outreach activities and programs.

Graduate student Yajuan Shi studies the mechanisms of blood-brain barrier transporter regulation.

Yajuan Shi, a graduate student in Ethan Lippmann’s laboratory, studies the mechanisms of blood-brain barrier transporter regulation. Yajuan completed her undergraduate degree at Tianjin University.

What drew you to neuroscience research?

When I was an undergraduate, the sense of achievement attracted me to get involved in disease-related research. Reading about the translation of bench work to clinical trials inspired me to make contributions to potential therapeutic strategies. From the perspective of an engineer, the brain is like a marvelous machine that works precisely to control the whole body, regulate activities, and fulfill emotional needs. The ability to study complicated and efficient mechanisms underlying brain function is the coolest thing in my life.

Has any of your research encouraged you to change the direction of your career and/or research interests?

My research is related to Alzheimer’s disease. The more I do, the more I feel that there is still a long way to defeat these diseases. However, I believe that the efforts of generations can finally make it happen.

I am glad I can be a part of this community to push the edge of the study of neurodegenerative diseases.

What do you do for fun?

Our lab outings have been so much fun. We recently had a T-shirt printing party with the slogan “Will Science For Donuts”, where each member of the lab chose their own sprinkle to put into the design and create our special lab totem. We also co-run a Twitter account for our beloved lab hammock where we share daily life in the lab.

Elena Blanco-Suarez, a postdoc in Nicola Allen’s laboratory, studies the role of astrocyte-secreted factors in synaptic maturation and plasticity, and their possible application to protect from neurodegeneration. Elena completed her undergraduate degree at the Universidad de Oviedo in Spain and her PhD at the University of Bristol in the UK.

Postdoc Elena Blanco-Suarez studies the role of astrocyte-secreted factors in synaptic maturation and plasticity.

What excites you about neuroscience research?

The little that we still know and how much is yet to discover is what excites me. This is still the same reason why I decided to pursue a career in neuroscience in the first place.

I love reading papers about new discoveries, or talking to people at conferences about their hypothesis. I learn something new every day.

What advances do you see happening in the next five years?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is taking giant steps and contributing to research greatly, not only in neuroscience but in pretty much every field you can think of. It looks like this trend will continue to grow, and we’ll see more AI integrated into our research and daily lives.

What do you do for fun?

I like going to live music shows, especially at small venues where I have the chance to meet local bands, old and new. I love traveling, especially visiting incredible U.S. national parks. I also do a lot of science communication and outreach, which gives me the opportunity to interact with different communities and learn what excites them about science.

Graduate student Gregory Lum studies the role of the gut microbiome in epilepsy. He completed his undergraduate degree at UC San Diego.

Gregory Lum, a graduate student in Elaine Hsiao’s laboratory, studies the role of the gut microbiome in epilepsy.

What drew you to neuroscience research?

I have always loved science, but experiencing firsthand a family member with Alzheimer’s disease really drew me to neuroscience research and research on neurological diseases.

What do you think is the most interesting thing happening in neuroscience?

The increasing acceptance that the microbiome can impact the nervous system as well as cognition and behavior is fascinating. Understanding these connections could lead to alternative methods to treat different neurological or developmental disorders.

What do you do for fun?

When I am outside of the lab, I like to stay active and go to the gym. I also like to search out new restaurants and find delicious food.

Learn more about the CZI Neurodegeneration Challenge Network.

By Ashley Valdovinos-Rodriguez, Intern, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

Ashley Valdovinos-Rodriguez is a first-generation freshman student at UC Merced pursuing a B.S. in chemistry with an interest of attending medical school to become an obstetrician-gynecologist. Ashley was recently a summer intern at CZI, where she worked to support the Neurodegeneration Challenge Network through an internship program between CZI and the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula.

Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative

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Supporting the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.

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