During a lifetime, most individuals will engage in potentially addictive behaviors-- from consuming drugs, such as alcohol or nicotine, to gambling. However, only a portion of people will develop an addiction and a huge question in neuroscience is, why? What makes those people different? Dr. Ben Saunders is an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota exploring individual differences in addiction vulnerabilities and their underlying neural circuits. We chatted with Ben about his past and prospective work, the future of neuroscience, and how to manage stress in academia.
If you’re interested in studying drug-seeking models and neural imaging, the Saunders Lab is recruiting graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. For updates, don’t forget to follow Ben and the Saunders Lab on Twitter!
What does your lab study?
The Saunders Lab is brand new, so pretty much all of our work is ahead of us! We're interested in reward-related motivation and how environmental cues spur, invigorate, and shape reward-seeking. We wish to explore decisions and behaviors in both health and psychiatric disease states, like addiction. In particular, we want to break down concepts like "reward" and understand them for their psychological and neural circuit complexity. Two major knowledge gaps that we want to help solve are first, how and why does behavior transition from adaptive to maladaptive in addiction and related diseases? And second, how and why do some individuals, but not others, make this transition? For us, this will involve developing new behavioral models that allow us to isolate different features of drug-seeking and relapse, and applying new methods for detailed behavioral analysis, circuit manipulation, and measurement. In the past, I have focused on dopamine circuits, but the Saunders Lab will also investigating other systems that have been less studied in reward neuroscience (i.e., sensory systems). Stay tuned!
Dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (red) transfected with a virus (green).
What led you to become a circuit neuroscientist?
My first research experience was in college spending a summer digesting leaf samples for DNA extraction and analysis. From there I explored animal psychology by training pigeons on decision-making tasks. This was a formative experience because I realized that I liked being able to "see" what I was studying. Animal behavior is great for that and it became pretty clear that behavioral / systems neuroscience was my thing. I hugely lucked out going to the University of Michigan for graduate school. The biopsychology program there is full of amazing, thoughtful people who care about breaking down behavioral psychology concepts and assigning them circuit mechanisms. By the time I began a postdoctoral fellow, neural circuit techniques were starting to expand and become accessible. Because I am interested in understanding the fine details of behavior, and interpreting them psychologically and neurobiologically, modern circuit methods with the temporal and genetic precision opened up a lot of doors.
Do you have any hobbies?
I try to maintain a hard line between work and everything else. However, I always struggle with this question because I don't have a quick answer like "archery" (although I did successfully try it at a conference last year so that is on my list for future investigation). In the past couple years I have increased my fiction reading which has been almost exclusively sci-fi/fantasy. If you’re looking for a recommendation, check out The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, you will not be sorry. Since moving to open my lab I have started a record collection and got two cats, who take a decent amount of attention. I also have high hopes for the cold weather activities available to me in Minnesota. Maybe I'll take up ice fishing.
The Saunders Lab at University of Minnesota. L-R: Drs. Ben Saunders, Anne Collins, and Amy Wolff.
What advice do you have for early-career scientists?
A philosophy that I think translates across career levels and subfields is that success, at least in broad terms, is not a zero-sum game. Worrying about how your accomplishments compare to your peers can create a significant amount of stress, especially early in one's career. For example, in grad school this can be prominent as students in a cohort advance together. Of course, sometimes it really is “they win, you lose”, but in the long run everyone benefits when people realize there is no cost to being happy and excited about the successes of others. I try to maintain that viewpoint and set a good example for my lab and peers.
What excites you about neuroscience today?
It's an amazing time to do brain science. Not only because there are so many tools, but because opportunities are expanding so more labs can use them. This is partly due to open-source technology, data sharing, and preprints, among many other factors. I am especially excited about new fluorescent sensors (e.g., for specific neurotransmitters, more sensitive calcium and voltage indicators, etc.) combined with the new imaging tools, like Inscopix miniaturized microscopes. Because of these new tools, I think this is going to be a boon for circuit analyses. Beyond the practicals of doing the science, as a new Principal Investigator (PI), I am excited about shaping the future culture of the neuroscience community. There is a lot we must do to improve academia to create equity for all people, from ending sexual harassment to increasing diversity. As a person who benefits from structural privilege, I see it as a major personal responsibility to be a driver of these improvements. Ultimately it's up to people in positions of power to promote safe, inclusive, healthy science work environments. I hope we can begin to scrutinize our biases and work toward creating positive scientific cultures.
Thanks Dr. Ben for spending your coffee break with Inscopix - it was a pleasure!
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