We asked seven neuroscience experts for their advice to anyone desiring to make their mark, either at the research bench or outside of academia. Much of what they said applies to any professional endeavor. Below we included the direct quotes from our interviews.
- Communicate across fields. “Your impact is going to be predicated on your ability to communicate and work with others, and at least have a broad understanding of everything that’s going on. We’re beyond the point in time, with technology and complexity, where people are going to make their mark by working in a basement with no windows listening to Rush while drinking cans of Mountain Dew, and not talking to people. I come from a family of engineers and that’s pretty much how I grew up. Now it’s all about understanding other people’s science, and how your science fits in. You’re not going to know everything about all the techniques you’re using that are needed to understand the complexity of the brain. So it’s your ability to communicate; it’s your ability to understand, and put your contribution in the context of a larger community.” – Kip Ludwig, PhD, Associate Director, Mayo Neural Engineering Laboratories
- Get to know the patients. “Spend time with the people, those who are really struggling with the brain disorders you really care about. They will teach you a lot. They will be your north star, so that when you’re working late at night in your lab and you are frustrated because that experiment didn’t work out, you’ll remember why you’re doing this. Also make sure that what you’re doing has relevance to the people that you hope to help.” – Geraldine Dawson, PhD, Director, Duke Center for Autism & Brain Development
- Keep an open mind. “Some of the most interesting work right now is happening on the interface of fields that are often separate. The history of science and even neuroscience has been people working in their own domains, even amongst what we know now are very closely related disorders, like autism and schizophrenia, which really share of lot of genetic risk. Clearly if one’s interested in autism, one needs to be also thinking about schizophrenia and other related neuropsychiatric disorders. Some of the most interesting work is going to be on the boundaries of what have typically been siloed fields. This ability now to record from many many neurons at the same time and the boundary of data analysis and quantitative behavior–that’s where the interesting action is going to happen.” – John Spiro, PhD, Deputy Scientific Director, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative
- Understand yourself. “It sounds so obvious, but so often people sort of think that they should be doing whatever their advisor has done, what their parents think they should do, when in fact, they should pay attention to where there are unique interests and unique skill sets. When one aligns those interests and skill sets with opportunities, that’s where this potential comes from, and that’s true whether it’s at the bench or beyond the bench.” – Bill Martin, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer and Head of R & D at Blackthorn Therapeutics, Inc.
- Attune your life to the things that you’re interested in. “The things that you’re interested in are going to be the things that will drive you the hardest, and make you the happiest. Figuring out how to combine your interests is a first step. And because we’re in the golden age of neuroscience right now, an understanding of the brain and having a technical understanding of science will serve you no matter what you do. So if you decide to go out of academia, I think that there’s going to be good opportunities if you can be clever about what you want to combine that knowledge with.” – Greg Dunn, PhD, Fine artist, neuroscientist, musician
- Don’t go after the latest, hottest thing. “Find something you’re really interested in, and where you feel like you have the core talent that you can develop. Think about where you can make a difference, as opposed to areas where there’s already one hundred labs working on it. I think there’s so many questions in neuroscience. There’s not a gap of opportunity.” – Katja Brose, PhD, Editor/Executive, Neuron/Cell Press
- Work across boundaries. “Having been engaged both in very basic research and clinical work, as well as industrial work, I think it’s important to understand other people’s perspectives. In other words, other people’s ability to address problems in a different way. I think working across boundaries to me has been the most instructive and inspirational aspect...it is the place where you get the best ideas, and you see ways in which you can address a problem with a different technology with a different mindset. I think being able to be exposed to a multidisciplinary environment, and seeking that environment in your development as a scientist, as a researcher. It’s very critical. So, being at the right institution where you can exchange ideas and see how things are done differently.” – Luca Santarelli, MD, PhD, Chief Executive Officer at Theracon AG
What advice would you give to an aspiring neuroscientist?