An Interview with Dr. Bernardo Sabatini
Dr. Bernardo Sabatini, the Alice and Rodman W. Moorhead III professor of Neurobiology, at Harvard Medical School visited McMaster University last year as the guest speaker at the 2nd Annual Jack Diamond Memorial Lecture. His talk on “Multi-transmitter neurons in the mammalian brain: more than just an oddity” was well-attended by the McMaster scientific community. Dr. Sabatini’s own research focuses on reward-driven actions and the underlying circuitry involved in learned behaviours. During his visit, he took some time out to meet with some of our MiNDS students, and to chat with me.
Tell me a little about your undergraduate journey. What got you interested in the sciences and then later, research?
I come from a family that has a lot of scientists in it so I was always interested in science. I grew up thinking about ideas. When I was younger, I was much more of a computer science and engineering person so that’s what I studied in college. I was interested in artificial intelligence and robotics. When I was in college, those were very primitive fields so it seemed like one would have a very frustrating career staying in them. From then I started thinking more about how our brains solve problems so I switched to biology.
Tell me a bit about your graduate career.
I’ve definitely had to go through a process of compromising on the topic in order to get the training. I went into an MD/PhD program at Harvard Medical School because I wasn’t sure about going into medical school versus doing research. The beginning of graduate school was a very hard time because I came from thinking about more system problems. I was somewhat naïve because I went to Harvard thinking there would be people studying the problems that I would be interested in. That really wasn’t the case so I struggled to find a lab that I wanted to be in. Eventually, I switched fields and found somebody that did good quantitative research so I became more of a biophysicist in graduate school. In retrospect that was fantastic training because it helped me think quantitatively about problems and helped me define answerable questions. It gave me my skills in whole cell physiology and in imaging that I’ve used ever since. Once I got through that, I realized medicine was not for me - I wanted to stay in research.
Let’s talk about lab work. What are some of the big questions that you are trying to answer in your lab?
The big, overarching question that we would like to answer relates to experience-dependent modifications to your behaviour. We want to understand what actually changes in the brain when you have an experience that is either good or bad that then makes you try to either repeat or avoid having that experience again. It’s a very simple question that governs a tremendous swath of behaviours. We know that the systems that control it are very important in human disease. You have perturbations in this system that show up in Parkinson’s, drug addiction, OCD and so forth. That’s the important guiding question. I don’t think we are anywhere close to really answering that question so we break it down into lots of smaller questions that help us explore the fundamental circuitry of parts of the basal ganglia. For example, what does it really mean to be one class of neuron versus another class of neuron?
What is your vision for the field of developmental neuroscience? In relation to this, where do you see yourself and the lab in the bigger picture?
There are tremendous mysteries that need to be addressed. Answering those questions is the key to understanding “how the brain works” because the structure of the brain isn’t predetermined but really depends on patterns of activity. Therefore, one has to understand the rules that govern how the brain is wired. That’s a fundamental developmental neuroscience question. If we can really learn what those rules are then we can predict the structure of the brain and its governing principles. From there, one might be able to understand how the brain carries out the computations that it does.
In addition to our studies of the adult brain and this process of action selection and action evaluation, we do quite a bit of work on development. We focus on generating genetically mosaic tissue. That’s important because it allows us to find how cells compete. How do different states of a cell impact its relationship with its circuitry? How does activity govern the control of circuit development?
Who are your role models?
It’s important to look at how individual people operate and figure out what their key skills and talents are. For example, my post-doc adviser Karle Svoboda had an amazing knack at finding the oddity in a dataset. He could always find the strange thing that some people might overlook. He would pick it up, focus on it and find something fascinating about it.
I also admire my PhD adviser, Wade Regehr who is without a doubt one of the most rigorous and careful scientists. As a thought process in the lab, I often ask my students to find a study that they would want to read and to do the next step for without repeating the original work. Wade Regehr’s papers are so beautifully done and so carefully formulated that you could believe them and move on.
What advice and tips do you have for graduate students?
For graduate students, this is a tough career and you have to have the right mindset for it. It’s an incredibly rewarding career so I think it is well worth it. You have to find a way to balance many competing desires and influences. First of all, successes in graduate school are tremendously rewarding and failures are tremendously frustrating. You have to find a way to keep an even keel through the whole thing to be able to ride both the highs and the lows. The best way to do that is to work on something that you are truly passionate about and are excited to tackle every day so that when you have one of those low periods, you can still have that drive to push through it.
Another piece of advice is to remember that failure is a part of this process. Try many things that don’t work to get to something new and exciting. There is no point in doing experiments whose answers you know or those that are incredibly easy. Challenge yourself! You will have failures and that’s okay. I would also recommend that the graduate students be really thoughtful in developing skill sets. For example, curing Alzheimer’s disease is a wonderful goal but it is unlikely that a graduate student will cure it. Therefore as you tackle the problem, you should think about the skills you need to learn. You want to make sure that at the end of your PhD, you know how to do lots of different things. This is what is going to carry you forward into the future.
Outside of academia, how do you spend your time? What are your thoughts on how to maintain a healthy work-life balance?
I have 3 boys ranging from 19 down to 11 years old so I spend a lot of time with them. That’s incredibly fun! I also do things that I enjoy. I go on long runs and I have a group of friends that meet to do speed work at the track. I also hang out with my brother.
Work-life balance can be difficult but it shouldn’t be because in the end you will be much more productive at work if you are happy and have that balance. I work very hard but I also make sure to check out. I have dinner with my family every night and I don’t work at night while my kids are awake. It’s important to do things for yourself. You will be a better scientist if you are happy and somewhat selfish.
Thank you for your time. I am sure the MiNDS students will find this helpful. Before we do end off, would like you to share a random fun fact?
Corals consist of three animals that live by photosynthesis. They have another organism living inside of them called a symbiote which performs photosynthesis. The funny thing is that you have mitochondria inside of these symbiotes, which use O2 to produce ATP. Mitochondria were also thought to once have been an independent organism. So basically, you have an organism inside an organism inside an organism, and that makes a living coral!