Jason Christie, PhD
Jason Christie has an enviable career path, which many of us might envision when starting graduate school: successful projects in his graduate and postdoctoral labs, a string of publications in relevant peer-reviewed journals, a faculty position at an illustrious research institute. But we all know that, especially these days, it’s no longer a given that you’ll be conducting your own research in an independent lab. Nevertheless, last year Christie snagged a job as Group Leader of Synapse Physiology at the Max Planck Florida Institute. He credits his good fortune with hard work and excellent training at OHSU’s Vollum Institute.
The new Max Planck Florida Institute might sound like a set-up for the late-night radio game of “Germany or Florida,” in which contestants guess the origin of a quirky news story. Although research is directed by the Germany-based Max Planck Society, the institute physically sits on the Jupiter, Florida, campus of Florida Atlantic University (FAU). With fewer than a thousand undergraduate students, research is the primary focus at the Palm Beach County site, where the Scripps Institute also has a presence. Christie’s lab now employs one postdoc and an undergraduate intern, and future graduate students are a good possibility. Like the Vollum in its very early days, most MPFI investigators are just starting their careers. Christie calls it a “really dynamic place with a lot of energy,” and he relishes the opportunity to “be a part of that development process.” That energy arises partly from the Max Planck Society’s philosophy of aiming for big breakthroughs through risk-taking science. The approach, Christie says, also frees him from the more conventional constraints of funding through NIH grants. “The Society trusts the investigator to find and pursue big projects that really emphasize breakthrough and discovery. That commitment to science really permeates the institute, and that’s so exciting.”
Christie credits his NGP mentors with teaching him “the two most important things a young scientist can learn.” As his PhD mentor, Gary Westbrook taught Christie to present science in the framework of an interesting and logical story, so that he could effectively communicate it to his audience. After earning his degree in 2004, he chose to stay for a postdoc with NGP faculty member Craig Jahr. “What Craig does well is ask tightly focused and insightful questions,” he said, perhaps the most crucial skill in science. These might seem like nebulous qualities. Christie points out, “the apprenticeship we undertake isn’t a particular sequence of events, or tools and skills that we pick up. It’s more like an amalgamation of things you observe,” over many years. He learned that “when you see something done really well, you emulate it,” based on those experiences. Christie says he didn’t fully appreciate all that he had learned at OHSU until he was on his own professionally.
In addition to that “amalgamation” of scientific training, the technical and experimental skills Christie learned at OHSU have prepared him well for running his own electrophysiology lab. In Westbrook’s lab, Christie used patch-clamp electrophysiology to study the neuronal circuitry of the olfactory bulb. Next Christie wanted to look carefully at synapses in particular, and how they contribute to information flow in neuronal circuits. Jahr was investigating those types of questions. Christie also needed to learn two-photon microscopy in order to probe the physiology in which he was interested. “I knew I’d have to make that transition and understand that technology.” At that time, Jahr also happened to be building a two-photon microscope, which made the postdoc the right fit.
There was one more big advantage to staying in Portland for another six years: he didn’t have to move his family, including a young daughter. Christie has a warning for people interested in coming to Portland. “People should recognize that it’s a bit of a vortex. It’s very, very hard to leave Portland.” But he and his family are settling into their new home in Florida, and Christie’s lab is up and running. “Experiments are being done; data is being compiled.” For any scientist, those words sound like success.