Please give a brief, lay-audience accessible description of your research.
Our brains are made up of billions of neurons that communicate with one another to allow us to carry on our daily lives. Neurons have the ability to encode complex processes like learning and memory through their incredible adaptability at the specific site of communication between neurons, the synapse. My work is interested in understanding the mechanisms of how synapses change in response to their work-load, in particular, how the synapse is able to fuel these alterations through adjustments in tiny cellular power plants called mitochondria. Instead of trying to understand a single synaptic connection within a multi-billion neuronal network like the human brain, I study the synapses of the fruit fly larvae as a more accessible and comprehensible experimental model system. By understanding how the neurons that control the movement of this simple worm-like animal adapt, I am ultimately trying to get a big picture understanding of how neurons effectively communicate in humans, which I hope can guide future clinical applications for neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Parkinson’s disease.
What aspect of your research is more interesting to you? Think big picture.
I always take an evolutionary approach to thinking about my research, which is the most fascinating way to think about biology in my opinion. In studying the neurons that control the movement of fruit fly larvae, evolutionary pathways must exist that will allow these organisms to maintain a high level of neuronal activity to support sustained locomotion. If not, they will become easy lunch for a bird, so evolution has selected for genes to support a functional and adaptable synapse between the neurons and the muscles that carry out movement. It is up to me to come up with proper experiments to uncover these genes that evolution has dedicated to this task.
What about your career path is most exciting to you and why? (Teaching, mentoring, research, writing grants etc)
In addition to developing my postdoctoral research into an independent research program, I am just as excited to teach undergraduates biological sciences in my future career. In my career thus far, I have witnessed first-hand the mentoring relationship between a lab’s principal investigator (PI) and his/her graduate students and postdocs, but even the most prolific PIs directly mentor a limited number of mentees. The classroom provides the chance to get hundreds, even thousands, of students to become passionate about science. Students that will not only go onto careers in research, but various careers in medical sciences as well. Because of this, I see the combination of research and teaching as a means for me to play a positive role in human health and disease on multiple fronts.
What makes UM the best place for you to carry out your career goals?
Michigan in the quintessential institute for my general interest in having strong research balanced with quality instruction. The people here at U of M take pride in being at the leading edge of their respective research fields, but also take pride in the rock star undergraduate students in their classes that go on to do amazing things in the world. Being my undergraduate alma mater, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to come back here to train as a postdoc, in hopes of one day becoming as talented as the professors that taught me as an undergraduate.