The Neuroscience Graduate Program was founded in 1992 and has 145 graduates as of 2018. Research areas range from molecular to systems neuroscience and many areas in between. Click to see Graduates by Year.
The Neuroscience Graduate Program at OHSU was a wonderful and rigorous training program that prepared me to be an independent thinker and a successful research scientist. The experiences and opportunities available to me as a student at OHSU allowed me to not only successfully completed my PhD, publish papers, and attend top research meetings, but also discover my passion for clinical medicine. This became clear in my second year as a graduate student while taking one of the core NGP courses, Neurobiology of Disease. In this course we had the opportunity to shadow a neurologist, and I was paired with a neuromuscular neurologist who was very generous in allowing me spend many hours shadowing her in clinic even after the completion of the course. Seeing the clinical side of neuroscience through both the Neurobiology of Disease course and the time I spent in the neurology clinic were unique opportunities available to me as a graduate student that helped to solidify my plans for my future. During my 4th year, I applied to Physician Assistant programs and everyone in the NGP, including faculty and students, were so helpful and supportive throughout the process. Thanks to all the help and support, I am now a PA student at Rosalind Franklin University in North Chicago, IL. My time at OHSU doing research has been extremely helpful in my first year of PA school, giving me a solid and in-depth knowledge base in biology that has helped me excel in the coursework. My neuroscience research background is definitely different from most in PA school, but I have found it incredibly helpful in everything from coursework to understanding complex disease states from a mechanistic standpoint. In the future, I hope to build on what I learned in the NGP at OHSU, combining some clinical research with my clinical practice as a PA. In my time at OHSU I met many influential scientists, clinicians and fellow students who together helped to shape my goals and my future.
Melissa Herman graduated with her PhD from the Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP) in 2009 and left Craig Jahr’s lab on the second floor of the Vollum Institute for a postdoc in a lab half-way around the world at Charite Universitätsmedizin in Germany. While it might seem like a radical change, Herman has found many parallels with her new life in Berlin and her time at OHSU. One contributing factor: her new boss, Christian Rosenmund, also earned his PhD on the Vollum’s second floor.
Herman grew up “really in the middle of nowhere, in Northeastern Washington,” where her parents run a small organic orchard growing cherries, apricots, peaches, apples, and pears. As an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Herman worked with NGP faculty member Steve Arch. “My hands-on experience certainly helped with graduate school in terms of thinking critically about research, experimental design, and the importance of asking questions.” Though she initially planned to stick to molecular biology-based techniques, “the neurophysiology course really changed my mind about working in electrophysiology.” She chose to work in Craig Jahr's lab “because of the questions, the way he approached science…and the overall environment. The level of science being conducted in his lab is so high. I also really appreciated how much freedom he gave me to explore my own ideas. He really was a great mentor.”
In the Jahr lab, Herman worked in hippocampal brain slices to determine how glutamate transporters set the level of ambient glutamate, and how this affects synaptic transmission. Now in the Rosenmund lab, she has turned her attention to studying the role of synaptic vesicular glutamate transporters. Once she decided to work in electrophysiology, she wasn’t deterred by the male-dominated atmosphere. She started as one of only a few women on the second floor, but that ratio grew to nearly fifty-fifty by the time she left. Regardless of gender makeup, “the level of the discussion was very high. People weren't afraid to participate and ask good questions,” particularly in the weekly Journal Club held on the second floor.
Herman knew she wanted to work for Rosenmund after meeting him at a Vollum seminar, when he was still working at Baylor College of Medicine in Huston, Texas. “He asked me right away if I had any ‘location restrictions’…and then told me he was thinking of moving to Berlin. I told him that that was great, because I thought that coming from Portland, Berlin would probably be less culture shock than Houston.” Indeed, Herman has found likenesses between the cities. “There's a similar style between Berlin and Portland. People are very progressive; there are lots of young intellectuals everywhere.”
Rosenmund’s lab is substantially larger at 12 people than the four usually found in the Jahr lab. And Herman is learning more molecular techniques with the shift to presynaptic machinery. But she still feels quite at home in her new lab. “I think Christian is trying to get that 2nd floor feeling into our institute. We're doing a bi-monthly journal club, and just started a pizza-and-beer happy hour once a week.”
Recently, Neuroscience Graduate Program alums Jennifer Petersen and Jill Wentzell got together to take a break from their postdoctoral research and catch up with one another for a relaxing weekend. The two women became fast friends as graduate students, and they have maintained their friendship by meeting up in a city near their new jobs—in London.
When they were considering a move to Europe for their first postdoc, Jennifer Petersen and Jill Wentzell were confronted with two common responses. "Some people said, 'Just go,'" whereas others pointed out "all the things that could go wrong, and all the things to fear," says Petersen. She decided to take the plunge because "I wanted to be the type of person who did things instead of worrying about what could go wrong." Now working in the lab of Daniel Choquet at the Universite de Bordeaux in France, Petersen says she's never second-guessed her decision, "and that's a good feeling."
Jill Wentzell crossed the pond to join Alicia Hidalgo's lab at the University of Birmingham, England, which makes up an extremely diverse group. Among the lab's eight members, no two people hail from the same nation. But Petersen and Wentzell both say the international flavor of their European labs isn't so different from their labs in the NGP. "OHSU has a very international community," especially considering that Portland isn't a huge city, says Wentzell. In graduate school, Wentzell worked in the lab of Doris Kretzschmar, who is German. Perhaps partly because she's European, Wentzell suspects, Kretzschmar was very supportive of working internationally; she regularly sent lab members to science meetings abroad.
Other faculty members were supportive as well when Petersen and Wentzell were considering the European stint. Petersen says, "I always thought I would live abroad, and particularly in France, but I thought that hope was gone…[after] undergrad." At a thesis committee meeting, NGP faculty member John Adelman encouraged her to consider a postdoc in France. "The faculty are so important, because they can influence us in such a powerful way," says Petersen, citing a common experience. Sometimes a mentor's words of encouragement can shape a student's life, "and they may not even realize the positive influence [they] have had."
Of course any new postdoc faces many challenges starting out in the lab, but these can be heightened in a foreign country. (Both researchers agree: reagents don't come quite as quickly and reliably as they did in the states.) During the first year, as Petersen expected, most of her energy went into setting up her project and making the transition. She brought the expertise in live light-imaging techniques that she had mastered as a student in Gary Banker's lab. Now, she is expanding on that work by imaging synapses using electron microscopy, which has been her long-term research goal. After two years, "things are starting to work, and it's fun. And I get to do that in Bordeaux, France."
For Wentzell, finding the right match with her postdoctoral mentor made the decision easy. Wentzell met Hidalgo at a meeting in 2009, when they hit it off immediately. "We had all these ideas together. She mainly works in development, but she wanted to get into [studying] adult Drosophila. That's my niche, so I brought that to the lab." Although the idea of moving to Britain for a new job was daunting—particularly because Wentzell's partner is back in Portland—she saw tremendous potential in working with Hidalgo. "After meeting Alicia, I couldn't not go to her lab; I just couldn't walk away from that opportunity."
Petersen and Wentzell also agree that the experience of living as a foreigner has changed their perspective somewhat. "I've developed more of a cultural awareness," Petersen says. Though they worked with many foreign researchers back in Portland, "now I have a whole understanding of what they're going through, and what might help them" face challenges. Though Wentzell lives in an English-speaking country, Petersen says even without knowing French she can get by pretty easily. "In the lab, everyone speaks English," and shopping presents the biggest hurdle. "But you can get by," she says. A great delight of living abroad is to discover new products and foods you wouldn't normally experience, they say. Wentzell says when she returns home, she'll miss her favorite find, "elderflower and pomegranate presse." Petersen's choice might be more obvious: "I'll miss the wine." But both agree, they'll always carry the experience of living abroad.
Ilia Halatchev, like most graduates of the Neuroscience Graduate Program, feels he is “not the typical grad student.” Perhaps it is because Halatchev is among just 15 NGP alums with an MD-PhD (although three members of the 2011-2012 class are seeking the double degree), or perhaps it’s due to the fact that he has three undergraduate degrees from the University of Washington (in Neuroscience, Cell & Molecular Biology, and Biochemistry). But Halatchev is not just after a string of degrees; rather, he’s pursuing “the best of both worlds” as a physician-scientist. His endeavour now continues in the Physician-Scientist Training Program at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. The program includes a residency in internal medicine, a clinical subspecialty, and several years conducting research in addition to ongoing clinical duties.
Halatchev says that OHSU was the perfect place to prepare him for the rigors of working both as physician and a scientist. “OHSU medical school training provides a great training for future physicians through teaching students broad, general medical knowledge.” This may stem from the fact that more than half the people in Oregon live in rural areas, and the state is in need of more primary-care physicians than specialists. For his graduate studies in the NGP, Halatchev worked in the lab of Roger Cone, where he investigated neuroendocrine signals that regulate energy homeostasis. But before choosing the Cone lab, Halatchev rotated through five different labs. “The NGP has an incredible breadth of great scientists working on very different aspects of neuroscience, which made it very difficult to decide on a lab.” In fact, he feels that when it comes to neuro-electrophysiology, OHSU has “some of the best scientists in the world.” Each day, he found, he could go from “one expert to the next,” just by walking down the hall. Additionally, Halatchev found the NGP to be one of the premier sites in the country for his other main area of interest: neuroendocrinology, which he ultimately decided to pursue. OHSU offered the combination of a broad clinical foundation and excellent basic-science training in neuroscience that was “exactly what I was looking for,” he said.
Although it might seem counter-intuitive for a neuroscientist to pursue training in a cardiology fellowship, Halatchev says the two fields are remarkably similar in several aspects. Both the heart and brain use an electrochemical communication that can be modulated hormonally or metabolically, and both organs are afflicted with “channel-opathies,” diseases that arise from malfunctions in the ion channels that conduct electrical signals. Halatchev was also drawn to cardiology because of his graduate work related to regulation of energy homeostasis. “Obesity, diabetes, and the metabolic syndrome play a huge role in cardiovascular health, from ischemic heart disease to cardiomyopathy to heart failure.” Now Halatchev, as part of his training program, is entering the three-year research component—much like a postdoc—in the lab of Jeff Gordon at Washington University. There he plans to investigate the contributions of the “microbiome” to metabolic health. “There are billions of bacteria, with their unique genomes and traits, in our gut, and they seem to be contributing to energy homeostasis and potentially to obesity. I would like to help elucidate the interplay between the gut bacteria and host-energy homeostasis.” Specifically, he will be investigating mechanisms by which the gut microbes affect the host’s metabolism via a variety of gut hormones, which communicate with the brain. “This goes back to the gut peptide work I did in the Cone lab, looking at how they regulate central energy homeostasis.” He credits the NGP with giving him “a great foundation of knowledge” that’s been key to his success. Ultimately, Halatchev hopes to play a dual role as scientist and physician: to better understand communications between microbes and the systems of the body, and then use that knowledge to improve human health. When asked for one piece of advice for students just starting out, he says: “Put your best foot forward, and keep moving forward.” Halatchev has certainly set an example in that regard.
In 2009, Sonal Das took a job that requires a particular skill that suits her perfectly: networking. As an Associate Director on the 16-person Research Programs team at The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research in New York, she helps direct the Foundation’s funding and research programs. Then, she stays in close contact with academic and industry scientists who carry out the research, which seeks to speed progress toward better treatments for Parkinson’s disease (PD). Das helps awardees troubleshoot projects that have hit a snag or brainstorm new directions around unexpected findings. She also helps foster key collaborations and schedules workshops among researchers, whether they’re new to PD research or experts in the field. “The Foundation has a birds-eye’s view of the field, so one of our major roles is to strategically link up related efforts.”
After completing her graduate work with Gary Banker in 2005, Das suspected that her career might not be in research at the bench. “I really enjoyed the bench, and my interactions with my advisor and fellow lab members helped me develop my critical thinking skills. But I wasn’t sure it was the right place for me.” A three-year post-doctoral position at the University of Washington confirmed her intuition. But she reports that the postdoc experience was key not only in building on her scientific training and networking skills, but also in helping her come to terms with exploring an “alternative” career path.
During her postdoc, she sat down and re-evaluated her skill set. Regardless of when you do it, she advises, “everyone should take a step back at some point and say, ‘Where am I now? Where do I want to go?’” Shortly before taking the position at the Foundation, an OHSU advisor asked her, what do you want to do—write? Read? Talk? “That was a great question; it gets to the nuts and bolts of your day,” she says. Ultimately, Das feels that her decision to work outside the lab freed her to “think about the problem I’m working on,” rather than worrying about things like the pH of a buffer. “This position is a better fit for me, because it allows me to apply my scientific background and think about the big picture without having to angst about the details of a particular experiment.”
An East Coast native, Das is happy back in the hustle and bustle of New York, but admits she misses the slower pace of the Northwest a little bit. “I miss the greenery,” she says, remembering the “gorgeous” drive to campus each day along Terwilliger Boulevard. She also shared a special camaraderie with her classmates in the NGP. “We would work late together,” she recalls, which might include a trip down to Higgins for a bite at the bar during a long incubation period. “Everyone would push each other, in a good way.” Das and her classmates pursued research projects in diverse areas of neuroscience, from biophysical modeling to control of postural orientation. But they still made time to meet and consult with one another throughout graduate school. That diversity of research, she notes, was one of the great strengths of the NGP. “There were so many faculty members, in every imaginable area from molecular neurobiology to physiology.” Members of the entering class of 1997 remain in close contact today.
In January, 2014 after 4.5 years at The Michael J. Fox Foundation, Sonal joined the MRC Protein Phosphorylation and Ubiquitylation Unit (MRC-PPU) in Dundee, Scotland. The MRC-PPU's expertise is focused on understanding two of the most significant post-translational modifications and their impact in health and disease. As Research Manager of the Unit Sonal plays a significant role in helping to further develop the MRC-PPU locally as well as on an international level in the broader research community. Her remit includes coordinating major MRC-PPU projects/collaborations, helping to develop and improve MRC-PPU scientific services, assisting the unit's investigators with grant funding applications, working with a team to develop 4 websites focused on the Unit's services and reagents and organizing public engagement in science activities in the Dundee community.
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.
When Ngan Vo started the Neuroscience Graduate Program at OHSU in 1997, she was no stranger to Portland or even to the Vollum Institute. A Portland native and graduate of Reed College, Vo worked as an undergraduate in the lab of John Scott, a former Vollum scientist. That bench work prepared her for her lab rotations and her graduate research on transcriptional regulation in Richard Goodman’s lab. The topic of her doctoral work took her by surprise. If you had asked her starting out in graduate school about the focus of her future thesis work, Vo says, “transcription would probably be the least likely idea. But I liked the lab, the way it worked, and I liked the field.” So, after rotations, she decided that was the best place for her. Vo—like many other NGP graduates—stresses that the research problem itself is not always the most important factor in choosing a graduate lab.
After finishing her PhD, Vo moved to Massachusetts, where she became a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Nobel prize-winning scientist Craig Mello at the University of Massachusetts at Worcester. There she worked on molecules called micro-RNAs and small interfering (si) RNA. Although the work was fulfilling, the position proved not to be the best fit for her. “I love working at the bench, but I realized that I didn’t want to work in C. elegans, and I wasn’t happy in Worcester.” So after weighing her options, Vo decided to bring that year of postdoctoral training back to the Goodman lab. Her strategy now is to take the research in a more independent direction by looking at the role of non-coding RNAs in gene regulation in the heart. Vo hopes to stay in basic science research as an independent investigator.
Vo feels that the NGP gave her the firm base she has relied upon in her research career, from the experience at the bench to the first-year coursework. She says of the Cellular Neurophysiology class organized by the Vollum’s second-floor faculty, “you could go from understanding nothing about electrophysiology to having a great foundation with which to critically evaluate the field.” Likewise, she appreciates the opportunity afforded by the Vollum Seminar Series, in which students discuss a guest speaker’s paper before the talk and then have lunch with the speaker afterwards. She jokes, “as postdocs, we had to organize to get the opportunity to meet with them. Now we feel lucky to get breakfast with a speaker!”
And like her classmate Sonal Das, Vo agrees that she and her classmates had a special bond. As different as they were, she says, “we were like-minded. And it’s easy to find like-minded people,” outside your research area. You don’t have to stay within your tiny niche of science. As for living in the Northwest, this native says the year-round opportunities for outdoor activities trump the weather. “Even though it does rain, I climb mountains, go backpacking, you could go rock climbing. If you really like the outdoors—or even if you’re curious—it’s a super-fun place.”
Dan Beacham Ph.D. works as a Senior Scientist in the Cellular Systems Division of Life Technologies, a company that encompasses Invitrogen and employs over 10,000 people. Beacham works at the Eugene, Oregon, campus, which once was a small company of about 300 employees called Molecular Probes, well known for developing dyes that have revolutionized biological inquiry.
“We don’t just make chemical dyes here,” explains Beacham. “We also are the source for all the cells, the gene sequencing and manipulation reagents, the gene delivery technologies, and all the screening tools used to rapidly interrogate multiple drug targets.” Their specialty, he says, is to take a technique that’s difficult and to make it accessible to everyone, so that scientists can train anyone to do research previously only done by a handful of labs. “Instead of mixing reagents and transforming E. coli,” Beacham wants scientists to “spend your time doing science experiments.” He describes his clients as “drug discovery gurus looking for ways to combat illness…to better the human condition. Being involved in that is tremendously exciting.”
Working at Life Technologies—and at most biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies, for that matter—puts researchers into the realm of applied science rather than the basic science research done at academic institutions. While visiting Molecular Probes to give a talk in 2006, Beacham realized that the applied nature of the setting was very attractive to him. “It took me about maybe half an hour to realize the possibilities here in terms of the freedom to operate, to take my training and put it to use in a context that might contribute more to human health and drug discovery than anything I’d ever done.” Shortly after that visit, he left the University of Washington to work at Molecular Probes. “I feel closer to the leading edge of science here than I ever was in academics.”
Beacham stresses the importance of forming personal relationships in science. It was in fact an invitation from an NGP classmate that first brought Beacham to Molecular Probes. And while earning his undergraduate chemistry degree at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, Beacham spent several summers in a lab internship program at the University of North Carolina where he formed relationships that “serendipitously” led him to a technician job and then the Neuroscience Graduate Program at OHSU.
Beacham describes the NGP as a great fit for him. As a technician, he’d “already proven myself to those I’d be working with on my home turf,” he says, and didn’t apply anywhere else. “It was easy to find a good fit there, because it was so broad and flexible that you could make your own pathway. And as far as training, you could do whole-animal physiology or you could look very, very closely at the molecular events that underlie consciousness. For me, I thought pain was good system to do that in.” Beacham earned his Ph.D. in the lab of Ed McCleskey studying the ion channel physiology of nociception. After leaving OHSU in 2000, Beacham worked for two years as a postdoctoral fellow for Martin Koltzenburg at the University College, London—again examining pain, but this time at the systems level. He followed this with a four-year postdoc with Bill Catterall at the University of Washington, investigating the molecular structure and function of ion channels.
Though he certainly values his post-graduate training, Beacham feels he got a fundamental, holistic neuroscience education in the NGP, “from the nitty-gritty biochemistry on up.” The P.I.-to-student ratio also stuck with him as one of the program’s great strengths, as well as the opportunities to interact with faculty members at informal gatherings like Friday Happy Hour. The Vollum seminar series gave us access to “top-flight researchers” from outside institutions, he recalls, as did the Student Research Forum and our “outstanding” retreats. “The student culture at OHSU in general was very strong—it was my kind of strong,” he says. “At bigger universities, they might have large societies that we didn’t have, but we had a chance for bonds and kinship that I couldn’t have found elsewhere.”
As for Portland, Beacham describes it as “far and away the best place I’ve ever lived,” on a list that includes Seattle, London, and Anchorage. Although Portland is often compared to Seattle, Beacham found there was “actually a world of difference,” especially when it comes to the cost of living. “I was able to buy a house and live comfortably,” on a student stipend. Beacham says Portland’s “proximity to the mountains, the ocean, and the desert, all within ninety minutes, and the city’s strong youth culture, plenty of music, coffee shops, an edgy hip scene,” all contributed to its standing on his list.
I earned my PhD from the Neuroscience Graduate Program in 2001. I worked as an electrophysiologist in the lab of Ed McCleskey (now a Senior Science Officer at HHMI) studying acid-sensing ion channels (ASICs), molecules that contribute to the sensation of pain. Although I was successful at research, I knew even as a graduate student that I did not wish to run a research lab, or even continue to do experiments myself. "You do the experiments," I told my mentors and peers, "I'll tell the people about them." And that's what I have done for 15 years--I work as a freelance (neuro)science writer. My career started in 2001 when I was awarded the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship, and I spent the summer writing for the news desk at the Los Angeles Times. I spent a year as an Associate Producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting producing a series of educational videos for science teachers. And I spent five [right?] years writing This Week in the Journal for The Journal of Neuroscience under then-editor-in-chief Gary Westbrook, which I consider my science-writing "postdoc." I also spent a couple of years teaching and advising at Washington State University Vancouver, which I enjoyed tremendously, and it helped hone my communication skills. I gradually worked my way to writing for broader audiences, for print and online media outlets including Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, and Pain Research Forum. My work has come full circle: while I have written about virtually every area of neuroscience, I now focus on pain research, and I am working on a book for general audiences about chronic pain. I also write about the senses and integrative health, and I teach yoga. Being a freelance writer is extremely rewarding. It's not lucrative,* it's not stable, and it can be lonely, but it has given me the flexibility to raise my two young children. Most importantly, I love it, and I feel like I am serving my life's purpose. You can see all my work at www.stephanisutherland.com, or find me on Twitter @SutherlandPhD.
Stephani Sutherland, PhD
Rebecca Seal, PhD, was among the first students to enter the Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP) at OHSU, in 1993. She began her research career by studying the structure and function of glutamate transporters in the lab of then-NGP faculty member Susan Amara. In her own lab at the University of Pittsburgh, Seal now studies a once “oddball” vesicular glutamate transporter that turned out to be a key player in hearing.
Although Seal now runs her own successful lab, a career path to Principal Investigator-ship was never a sure thing. After graduate school, Seal considered leaving academia for biotech. “That [idea] drew me to San Francisco.” Seal was offered a job at Genentech in 2001 but declined, because the company had just done away with their neuroscience program. Instead, she accepted an offer to postdoc in the lab of Robert Edwards at the University of California, San Francisco. Edwards was working on cloning the vesicular glutamate transporters (vGluTs), and Seal picked up a project working on vGluT3. “At the time, it was considered the oddball of the vGluT family.”
vGluT1 and 2 are expressed in most cells that release glutamate. But vGluT3 showed up in non-glutamatergic cells. “It was a challenge to study,” says Seal, “because people were saying, ‘It doesn’t function like the other vGluTs. It has a different role.’ Some even said, ‘It’s not supposed to exist anymore. It doesn’t do anything.’ That was tough.” But Seal persevered, making and characterizing knockout mice lacking the vGluT3 transporter. “One phenotype argued against the notion that vGluT3 wasn’t important: the mice were profoundly deaf.” Seal eventually found that vGluT3 packages glutamate for release from inner hair cells, the primary sensory cell for hearing in the cochlea. Experiments showed that although sound activated the hair cells, they couldn’t transmit the signal at the first synapse. “Our finding established [vGluT3] as a bona-fide vGluT,” says Seal.
Seal continues to explore the hidden roles of this unappreciated molecule beyond hearing, in somatosensory and pain physiology. This may seem a far cry from the molecular-level work Seal did starting out, but this too fulfills her career vision. After finishing her work in the NGP, she knew she “wanted to do something more at the level of behavior and circuits.” She certainly has done that, now tackling physiology questions with an ex vivo preparation she calls “a cool and powerful technology.” In the mouse prep, a neural circuit is left intact between the skin, the dorsal root ganglia—the nodules that house the skin’s sensory neurons—and the spinal cord, where they make their first synapse. By labeling vGluT3-expressing neurons, she can record from them in the dorsal root ganglia and see what kinds of stimuli—delivered at the skin—activates these neurons.
Seal found her training in the NGP provided a good mix of rigor and congeniality. “The caliber of the scientists is really high, and then it’s small enough that you can really get to know everybody,” she says. One of Seal’s fondest memories from graduate school is of a course taught by NGP faculty Craig Jahr and Gary Westbrook in which students read and discussed journal articles. The small class was very interactive with excellent instructors, she says, “so it was really high quality.” The fact that the course was held in Vollum Institute Director Dick Goodman’s “secret” library up in 4M made it even cooler.
Seal has some advice for graduate students just starting out. “First, figure out what the important questions are.” When faced with the opportunity to work in different labs, choose a lab where you can work on a project that’s both super interesting to you and could have real significance to the field. But perhaps just as important, Seal says, is ”keeping in touch with the senior people that really got to know you, like your advisors.” Seal embodies that advice, maintaining productive relationships with other researchers. Karl Kandler, a scientist she collaborated with in San Francisco, is also now at Pitt as head of the Auditory Research Group. “He’s like a mentor to me here now. His support makes it easier to work on projects in hearing.” And Susan Amara, Seal’s NGP mentor, is her chair in the Department of Neurobiology at Pitt. “When people you admire as scientists also admire you, it helps to nurture those relationships because these people will continue to give you good advice at all stages of your career. And it can be mutually beneficial by bringing out more good science for all”. And that’s ultimately the goal for any successful researcher.
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.
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.
The vast majority of students who matriculate through the Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP) at OHSU come with a degree in the biological sciences. So when Jeff Dzubay entered the NGP in 1993, he stood alone as the program's only Physics major. A Neuroscience class sparked his interest as an undergrad at the University of Washington. He remembers that with his physics and math background, his classmates "had more trouble with the Nernst equation than I did." Dzubay decided to pursue a graduate degree in research, and "took the path of least resistance" to an electrophysiology lab on the second floor of the Vollum Institute. Pun intended.
Part of Dzubay's decision to attend OHSU over other graduate programs was influenced by the fact his wife had been accepted to medical school at OHSU. And as a Portland native, he was happy to come back to his hometown. But he says it came down to the feeling he got from then-NGP Director Tom Soderling. Unlike at other programs, "he was very open and honest and welcoming, and I thought, 'that's the program for me.'" Likewise, he found a good fit in the lab of Craig Jahr. There he worked with Jahr and a small group of postdocs to do intricate ion channel analysis—what he calls "some interesting stuff in electrophysiology." Dzubay partly credits his contributions in the lab to his math and computer skills. Jahr agrees. "Jeff certainly brought abilities and expertise to the lab that helped us to do some things we wouldn't have been able to do without him."
By the time he finished his graduate degree, Dzubay had a two-year-old and a newborn and was in a marriage between two career professionals. He became a part-time "Mr. Mom" while teaching physics classes at the University of Portland and at Mt. Hood Community College. Dzubay found teaching a rewarding experience—"I enjoyed explaining how the world works." But as many Adjunct Faculty have found, it's neither a financially sustainable way to make a living nor is it "a clear path towards becoming a full professor," even at smaller universities that emphasize teaching.
Dzubay's next stop was a successful postdoc with Tom Otis at the University of California, Los Angeles. And when his wife got a great job offer in Eugene, Oregon, Dzubay used his network to find a job at Molecular Probes—which is now part of the enormous Life Technologies. After a brief stint as a Technical Assistance Representative—what he jokingly calls "the toughest job ever"—Dzubay was offered a position as a Product Manager in the marketing department. Suddenly, he found himself responsible for managing $12 million worth of research products. He likens the experience to running one's own little company within a larger corporation. But Dzubay wanted to get back closer to the science end of the business, so he communicated to his manager that he'd like to switch to Research and Development. He then proposed the development of a new product: a high-throughput screening assay for calcium release in cells—something he saw a big need for in the market. "They said, 'OK, you got three months to do it!'" Dzubay's endeavor paid off: he recently learned that the products he's been involved in developing have earned the company $6 million.
Although he finds the interplay between business and science "kind of exciting," he does sometimes miss the simplicity of the bench. "Research is based on the facts…you can do an experiment and make your case based on the data." In marketing, however, decisions can sometimes be influenced by "who's the loudest in the room." Now he has a balance between the two worlds in Customer Anthropology, a corporate term for understanding what scientists might want from the company in the future. He can't talk specifics about the "blue-sky" project he's working on now, but calls it "a new type of label-free imaging that might give us new ways of looking at biology."
Though no longer married, Dzubay expects to stay in Eugene for the foreseeable future to be near his children, now in middle school. Along the way, Dzubay discovered a passion for flying airplanes and has earned his commercial pilot license. He fantasizes about a retirement career flying tourists to Mexico or Hawaii. But for now he's enjoying the niche he's carved out for himself, nestled between science and business.