Some may look at Christopher Fiorillo's career path—graduate degree, postdoctoral training positions, a faculty appointment—as conventional, but he sees it as anything but. "It might have been simpler if I'd stayed with what I worked on in graduate school," Fiorillo says. Instead, his journey has taken him around the world geographically and, in another sense, from one end of the neuroscience spectrum to the other.
In the lab of John Williams, PhD, in the Vollum Institute, Fiorillo recorded from dopaminergic neurons in rat brain slices to address the cellular mechanisms at work in the brain's reward and addiction pathways. He got a serious education in cellular physiology and dopaminergic systems, which has certainly served him well. But after finishing his PhD in 1999, Fiorillo knew that he wanted take a step back and look at a bigger, whole-animal picture. "I was always interested in behavior, and I wanted to move toward that without leaving dopamine behind," he explains.
That line of thought led him to seek out a postdoc stint where he could record from individual dopamine cells in awake, behaving animals. So Fiorillo landed in the lab of Wolfram Schultz at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he worked with monkeys. "He was the only person in the world at that time who was recording from dopamine neurons in behaving animals." For his postdoc, Fiorillo went through a transition familiar to any scientist starting out in a new lab. Although the techniques were familiar, "the questions were completely different," from what he had been asking in his slice experiments in the Williams lab. To understand these different questions, he had to learn "a whole literature on behavior, systems, and theory."
Two years after Fiorillo arrived in Switzerland, the Schultz lab moved to Cambridge, England. In Cambridge, his health threw a monkey wrench, so to speak, into his plans. The primate laboratory was inside a rodent facility, and it lacked the proper airflow system to protect people from rodent allergens. Unexpectedly, Fiorillo had developed a severe rat allergy after conducting just a few behavioral studies in graduate school. Because he couldn't do experiments, he turned his attention to analyzing data and writing papers. His findings connected events at individual dopamine neurons with how animals learn about reward. This jump led him to become more interested in theoretical and computational neuroscience—something he had never before considered. He came to understand that "there's a quantitative definition of information," something he had been entirely unaware of as a graduate student immersed in teasing apart events at the molecular level.
Fiorillo completed another post-doc position in the lab of Bill Newsome at Stanford University, where he continued his electrophysiological recordings from primates. But at Stanford, Fiorillo applied his new knowledge of theoretical principles and systems physiology to develop a theory that attempts to relate the function of single neurons to the function of the system. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0003298
While visiting his girlfriend in Korea in 2008, Fiorillo decided on a whim to check out some universities. An auspicious visit to the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST) eventually landed him a job as Assistant Professor in the Department of Bio and Brain Engineering. Fiorillo describes KAIST as "the MIT of Korea," where much of the science is focused on engineering. While a career move to Asia wasn't part of his original plan, he feels he has a lot of intellectual freedom there to work in new areas. And after all, he points out, isn't that why we go into science in the first place? "The motivating factor is intellectual curiosity. For better or worse, I have certainly followed my intellectual curiosity, even though it has been a rather tortuous path."
Fiorillo points out that most of the progress in neuroscience thus far "has been almost entirely on the mechanistic side. The theory and computation side…hasn't really gone very far yet, but I think it's very important to pursue that work and bring it together" with the mechanistic findings, in order to understand the whole picture.
Fiorillo remembers the atmosphere in the Neuroscience Graduate Program as "a very comfortable place to be." He felt surrounded by "people who were very serious about science, but also fairly relaxed and friendly." An Oregon native, Fiorillo has crossed the globe and experienced life in many settings, including both U.S. coasts, Europe, and now Asia. Given the opportunity, he says he would choose the West Coast for living conditions. "I like Portland a lot. That's an endorsement," he adds with a smile.