How does preclinical research translate to therapeutic treatments of neuropsychiatric disorders? Dr. Jessica Jimenez is a physician-scientist who is working towards bridging the gap between the laboratory and the clinic. To do so, Jessica received her PhD in 2017 and is working towards her MD, expected May 2020. Her research in Rene Hen’s Lab at Columbia University explores the neural circuits underlying anxiety-like behaviors using state-of-the-art tools, like optogenetics and in vivo calcium imaging using Inscopix tech.
We had the privilege of learning more about the the experiences that inspire Jessica and her passions outside of the lab. Thanks for taking your Coffee Break with us, Jessica - we are proud to be able to support your research! Follow Dr. Jimenez’s journey on Twitter!
How did you become a circuit neuroscientist?
I became interested in neuroscience when I was a high school student after a close family member recovered from a severe psychiatric illness. I realized the importance of understanding how the brain works in order to continue developing treatments to impact human health. The experience also seeded a fascination for neurobiology and behavior. In college I discovered my love for scientific research after working for several years in a neural circuits laboratory. In Dr. Carlos Portera-Cailliau's laboratory at UCLA, I learned about the amazing techniques neuroscientists use to record the activity of neurons in vivo and felt compelled to pursue a career in neuroscience research as a physician scientist.
Jessica celebrating her newly awarded title at her post-thesis defense party. Congrats Dr. Jimenez!
Where do you find inspiration?
In the big picture, I get inspiration from my clinical experiences. Seeing the impact that psychiatric and neurologic illnesses have on patient's quality of life keeps me motivated to investigate the function of the underlying neural circuits. In the smaller picture, I am inspired by my colleagues when attending scientific talks-- especially during tough weeks when my experiments aren't working! Hearing about new, exciting research in progress makes me fall in love with neurobiology all over again, and motivates me to keep pushing my work forward.
What was your first “flashing lights” moment using Inscopix technology?
I remember getting my first mouse with active GCaMP+ cells with the Inscopix miniaturized microscopes very clearly. I was baseplating with my co-mentor at the time, Dr. Mazen Kheirbek and we were not expecting much because it was my first time performing these imaging surgeries. With a little luck and training from Dr. Joshua Jennings, who was a graduate student in Dr. Garret Stuber's lab, we lowered the miniscope to get the lens in focus and immediately saw beautiful spontaneous calcium activity! We were very excited since this was a brand new technology for the lab and the microscopes were literally "fresh out the box"! The ease we had in collecting imaging data with Inscopix tech caused a major shift not only in the direction of my thesis project (published in Neuron in 2018), but for most projects in the lab to follow.
Jessica’s Inscopix calcium imaging set-up. Here, she records hippocampal activity during an anxiogenic experience in the elevated plus maze (EPM).
What is the best piece of career advice you have ever been given?
Aside from the common words of wisdom (i.e., pick a good mentor), another piece of advice which I have really taken to heart is that "movement during your training is key". My undergraduate mentor told me this when I was applying for summer research internships and graduate school. Moving institutions during training stimulates your academic and professional growth by increasing the size of your network-- you gain new peers, colleagues, and collaborators. Moving also challenges you to adapt to new academic and cultural environments, which is a great skill to carry with you throughout your career.
What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab?
My favorite (and unfortunately, expensive) is learning about wine. I have taken many wine tasting classes and have approached studying wine and the regions they come from like a classic “Type-A” medical student. This has been a really fun hobby because first, I get to drink and appreciate delicious wines; and second, I have learned about places around the world that I wasn't very familiar with before. Not to mention, I have had some amazing vacations because I travel to these beautiful regions to taste their wine and explore! My pro-tip: Go visit Jura, France.
The Hen Lab at the University of Columbia.
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