Women in Science

with Julia Weinert

Julia Weinert presenting at the HBP Young Researchers Event © The Human Brain Project 2016 / Arantxa Cedillo

Interview by Arantxa Cedillo, write-up by Colin McKinnon

Collaboration is crucial in science, and the earlier scientists can receive training and tips on how to collaborate effectively, the better future outcomes will be. Recently, a group of young neuroscience researchers put together a programme focused on simulations on different scales of space and time, which was held recently in Budapest. In the lively, if somewhat noisy, atmosphere between sessions at this event, we managed to have an enlightening conversation with Julia Weinert, one of the talented young women in the neuroscience field. Julia works on the SloW-Dyn (Slow Wave Dynamics) project, one of the new HBP Partnering Projects.

Thank you very much for taking the time to meet with me. Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

My name is Julia Weinert. I’m a second-year PhD student at the Sanchez-Vives Laboratory in Barcelona.

Where are you from?

From Germany.

I’m actually from Spain. Do you live in Barcelona?

I live in Barcelona, yes. It’s a beautiful city.

So, what field do you work in?

I work in electrophysiology, recording local field potentials in vivo and in vitro in brain slices.

What exactly do you work on?

My PhD project is about how electromagnetic stimulation is modulating the neuronal activity. In my laboratory we are interested in slow oscillations and I in particular study how the stimulation with electric fields in vitro is modulating spatio-temporal behaviour of slow wave activity.

(Note: Slow wave activity is found in deep sleep, where the electrophysiological activity of the brain is synchronised as low frequency brain waves).

And why is it important?

Non-invasive brain stimulation techniques such as TDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) or TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) have already been used in clinical studies and have clinical applications with very promising results for both stimulation techniques. The problem is that they don’t really know what is happening at the network level. So I am trying to find out what the underlying network mechanisms of these brain stimulation techniques are.

(Note: TDCS and TMS are two forms of neurostimulation: TDCS uses a constant, low current delivered via electrodes placed directly on the scalp, while TMS uses a magnetic field generator placed near the head — small electric currents are produced just under the generator.)

What opportunities do you see for collaboration with others in your field, or in other areas?

Science lives from collaborations and there should be a strong communication between different groups to exchange ideas and create a bigger network. For my work, I see in the short term potential for data exchange, collaborations with theoretical groups developing a model based on this data and, for the future, in case we find nice results, we should team up with the clinicians, with those who are the end users applying our findings.

Julia Weinert ©The Human Brain Project 2016

What do you enjoy most about your work?

(laughs)

That’s a good question?

That’s a very good question! Now, obviously, it’s not the 16-hour experiments! (laughs). What I like about my work is that I really can see that, in the end, I might find something that’s helpful in the clinical trials that can be applied also in medicine, that is helpful for the patients. That’s where I’m aiming at, and that’s what makes my work, for me, special. I’m really thinking about something that, in the end, has an application, and it’s not just something we do in the laboratory that 10 years later no one talks about anymore.

Do you want to say something else about what you enjoy about your work?

The interaction with other scientists for me is very important, and that’s something I really appreciate, in particular. For my project I have some collaborations, that also include the field of neurotechnology and it’s very interesting to combine the experimental field and the theory.

(Note: Neurotechnology encompasses technologies that help researchers understand, repair and visualise the brain, and includes TDCS, TMS and various imaging and measurement techniques, as well as some biological and pharmaceutical therapies.)

What challenges do you face as a young researcher?

I know competition is very important in the field, to really surpass yourself. For me as a young researcher, what I find challenging is this continuous pressure of having to publish all the time, which kind of doesn’t leave you space to grow. It can limit your field because you’re very focused on one thing all the time; it’s part of the science, but for me it’s a bit challenging to accept.

What advice would you give to young people starting out in the field?

The advice that I would give to young people, other young scientists is ‘don’t be scared of what is awaiting you in the process of your PhD and the first years of post-docs’. Because there are quite some issues that will come your way!

Can I ask what was your route for getting into the field?

You mean into the field of neuroscience?

Yes, how you came into that field.

I got into the field of neuroscience because I always was very intrigued by how the human body is working, but I also have a very strong background in engineering, medical engineering, and in neuroscience these two fields are very strongly connected. And in the end, even though I have a medical engineering background, I favoured the experimental parts, which I find very interesting.

And my last question, then: would you encourage more women to become researchers?

Definitely, definitely. I encourage everyone to become a researcher, independent of their gender. Of course, women in research, particularly in neuroscience, have been under-represented, but what’s important is that you ask the right questions and, if you’re interested in the field, to definitely go for it.

Julia, thank you so much.