Category Archives: arts & culture

The greatest show on earth

“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly, those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?”

-Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder

This powerful passage signs off a wonderfully unique song by the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish from their album Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Drawing on works from Charles Darwin and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (who’s book The Greatest Show on Earth inspired the song name), this 24-minute magnum opus explores the major events of life’s evolutionary history to present day. The song is broken up into four larger parts that tell the tale of Earth’s unique history. This has quickly become one of my favorite songs. Let’s now take a closer look at how Nightwish set out to marry heavy metal with evolutionary biology concepts (link to a live version with guest appearance by Dawkins will appear at the end of this article).

Part 1: Four Point Six

The song opens with a repetitive and fluid piano melody accompanied by orchestral components that signify whatever “existed” before the Big Bang . At 1:33 the Big Bang arrives, and the music shifts to convey the resulting chaos and energy of a nascent universe being born. At 1:55 we are introduced to the main melodic theme that we will revisit throughout the song. Several more explosions are heard (2:40) which I imagine as our solar system coming together from the ensuing bombardment. The first lyrics are sung as a haunting ephemeral wailing.

 Archaean horizon, The first sunrise
On a pristine Gaea
Opus perfectum, somewhere there, us sleeping

Geologic time is broken into distinct eons, and the Archaean signified the earliest emergence of life. In Greek mythology, this life arose from Gaea the Greek goddess of the Earth. Life has now been established (opus perfectum- “perfect work”) and eventually mankind will appear from this starting template billions of years later. We are reminded that all the elemental building blocks are present in this early Earth, “waiting” to be reorganized into the human species. Next is another Dawkin’s excerpt:

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries
We have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet
Sparkling with color, bountiful with life
Within decades we must close our eyes again
Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief
Time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe
And how we have come to wake up in it?”

The song then erupts into fanfare (5:46), life is here and begins its unending 3-billion-year journey.

Part 2: Life

The cosmic law of gravity
Pulled the newborns around a fire,
A careless cold infinity
in every vast direction
Lonely farer in the Goldilocks zone
She has a tale to tell
From the stellar nursery into a carbon feast
Enter LUCA

Here is the birth of our solar system with Earth becoming one of the nascent planets circling our Sun. Outside the solar system, there is a vast and cold emptiness for light years in all directions. Earth is the lucky one in the Goldilocks zone (not too hot, nor too cold, but just right). The early Earth contains all the building blocks leading to the eventual evolution of our Last Universal Common Ancestor from which all current life sprang.

The tapestry of chemistry
There’s a writing in the garden
Leading us to the mother of all

In my mind tapestries evoke “weaving” which makes me think of the endless strands of double helical DNA connecting all forms of life through history. Life is commonly referred to as a garden and this can be interpreted as reading the fossil record showing us snapshots of the interconnectedness of all life in the past.

We are one,
We are a universe
Forebears of what will be Scions of the Devonian sea.
Aeons pass, writing the tale of us all
A day-to-day new opening
for the greatest show on Earth

Naturally what follows is that all life is connected as one. The band highlights the Devonian era which was a time period of massive radiation of fish (this era is termed The Age of Fishes) as well as land colonization of plants. We are all scions, descendants of a notable family (family tree of life), from this time period. Looking back even earlier to the Cambrian explosion, the earliest known chordate, Pikaia, is the ancestor to all vertebrates.  We now roll credits for the mention of the song’s title. Since life is always changing and evolving, each day is different. Thus, the story of life has a day-to-day new opening.

Ion channels
welcoming the outside world to the stuff of stars
Bedding the tree of a biological holy,
Enter life

There is a reference here to Carl Sagan who coined the term “starstuff” referring to all of life being made up of elements formed from the dying explosions of exhausted stars. Another beautiful connectedness of all life, arising not only from a common ancestor, but incorporating all matter born in the belly of long-gone stars. The focus on ion channels here is striking when you think about what they are trying to convey. Elements from dead stars were eventually combined into living forms that evolved proteins capable of generating action potentials in our neurons which allowed ourselves to become aware of the universe. Essentially through ion channels, the universe is able to learn about itself.

We are here to care for the garden
The wonder of birth of every formmost beautiful
Every form most beautiful

Chronologically humans have not appeared yet in the history of life, nor the song. I am unsure of the “we” that is referred to here, but it could be the general responsibility of all life due to our connectedness. Of course all lifeforms are beautiful, an homage to the final sentences of Darwin’s Origin of Species.

Part 3: The Toolmaker

Humankind has arrived. Animal grunts and other savannah creatures can be heard during our early days of trying to survive amongst animals that could easily kill us. The song explodes into another heavy riff signifying our eventual dominance over all life on Earth (11:53).

After a billion years
The show is still here
Not a single one of your fathers died young
The handy travelers out of Africa
Little Lucy of the Afar

This stanza makes us remember that we are all here because each one of our ancestors going back billions of years successfully reproduced itself to the next generation. An unyielding unbroken chain avoided life’s dead ends of extinct genera and species. We know that early humans migrated out of Africa and the earliest known mother of humankind was an Australopithecine named Lucy found in eastern Africa.

Gave birth to fantasy
To idolatry
To self-destructive weaponry
Enter the god of gaps
Deep within the past
Atavistic dread of the hunted

As the human brain developed it gave rise to religion and mythology to fill in gaps of missing knowledge, attributing that which was not known to deities. We also strive for continual and never-ending progress, as atavism is the fear of returning to a more primitive ancestral state (how could any of us live without the Internet?!)

Enter Ionia
The cradle of thought
The architecture of understanding
The human lust to feel so exceptional
To rule the Earth

Man has settled into civilizations and frees up time to think and discover how the world works. We elevate our status as greater than all other life forms, set to inherit the Earth.

Hunger for shiny rocks
For giant mushroom clouds
The will to do just as you’d be done by

Here is the self-explanatory human lust for gold and money, but also dominance over other humans through creation of super weapons. Weapons that have the capability of destroying ourselves.

Enter history
The grand finale
Enter ratkind

A warning of what may come. A reference to another Dawkin’s work, The Ancestor’s Tale. Here Dawkins imagines a post-apocalyptic world where rats survive and feast on the remains of human corpses and our agriculture/food products. As the population of rats explodes, they resort to cannibalism. Natural selection, always running in the background, allows rats to diverge and radiate out into different carnivorous and herbivorous species. Eventually through enough geologic time, intelligence arises in one species to that of humans. They then study human fossils and ponder how we had driven ourselves extinct.

Man, he took his time in the sun
Had a dream to understand
A single grain of sand
He gave birth to poetry
But one day’ll cease to be
Greet the last light of the library

I especially appreciate this passage as all scientists can relate to devoting our life’s work to a very small esoteric topic. Each of us has or could have their own “grain of sand” that they seek to fully understand. This is a unique attribute of human beings, but this facet of life may not always exist forever, ending with the destruction of the human race.

There is a notable section highlighting the evolution of humans through that of our music (starting at 13:55). Early tribal drumming and chanting can be heard. This is followed by throat singing and a famous Bach snippet. A rocket blast sets off the Modern Age and a banjo depicting country music. Then the unmistakable main riff from Enter Sandman by Metallica can be heard followed by a short measure of techno or electronic music.

Finally, the climax of the song. A desperate loud exclamation, “We were here!” emphasizes the desire that all humans have the need to be remembered, to leave their mark. I see this section as a warning as well. This proclamation ends with an explosion and crumbling rock. If continued on its current path, human society will be been destroyed. “We were here!” is an audible fossil to record how the human race once evolved to dominate the planet but like countless species before it, has gone extinct.

Part 4: The Understanding

Another gentle piano melody appears and allows us to reflect and take in the previous 17 minutes. We did just play out the entire history of life on Earth after all.

The song ends with the passage from The Greatest Show on Earth that began this article, and then the closing excerpt from Origin of Species.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one. And that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

I hope you enjoy the song as much as I do. It has quickly become one of my favorite songs, combining my love of biology, the works of Dawkins and Darwin, and metal music. Check out a live version with guest appearance by Richard Dawkins below:

Can you find artist among the scientific community?

Can you find artist among the scientific community? If you ask someone off the street if they consider a scientist an artist many may answer no; perceiving scientist as dull people in lab coats. This early March serval scientist at the Tufts Boston Campus where challenged to strut their artistic skills in the Sci-Art Competition helping break down the dull scientist persona people often perceive.

Jacob Klickstein, a Neuroscience student won first place with his “Brain Storm” piece. The piece was part of his current lab work in which he was looking at a cluster of iPSC-derived lower motor neurons stained for a cytoskeleton marker (TuJ1-cyan), a nuclear marker (dapi-blue) and a motor neuron-specific transcription factor (Hb9-red).

For second place, we had a tie between graduate students Ashlee Junior and Linus Williams. Ashlee is a Genetics student, her piece titled “INVADERS!” showcases Candida albicans filaments invading an agar plate.

Linus Williams is an Immunology student, his piece “A heart, broken by rejection”, is a Maisson’s Trichrome of a rejected mouse heart (Blue is fibrosis, red is muscle).

Eric Link is a technician in the Zeng lab. His piece “B-CHP Metatarsal on glass slide”, is a collagen hybridizing probe highlighting cartilage remodeling in the growth plate of a developing mouse metatarsal.

Quentin Bernard is a Microbiology student, his piece “Five, six, pick up Tick”, is an oxide’s scapularis tick stuck on its back before it was microinjected.

Alyssa DiLeo is a Neuroscience student. Her piece, “Possibilities: what went wrong with my western blot”, showcases the unfortunate results from a botched western blot.

Rachael Ryner is a CMDB student. Her piece, “Mermaid Mouse Brain”, is a fluorescent mouse brain section that has been immune-stained for beta-catenin and GABA in a CaMKII-Cre:Ai9 background.

Surendra Sharma is a CMDB student. His piece “The Dark Side of the Genome”, describes the long considered “dark matter” of genomes, regulatory noncoding RNAs like miRNAs and lncRNAs which are now recognized as key drivers and/or regulators of a variety of cellular processes.

Dominique Ameroso is a Neuroscience student. Her piece “Alien Astrocytes”, showcases astrocytes in culture – or an alien waiting for host.

Pragya Singh is a CMDB student. Her piece” A network of collagen”, exhibits collagen bundles forming in 3D, specifically a collagen1 gel as a result of LOXL2 treatment.

As scientists we have characteristics that by any dictionary definition would categorize us as artists. Naturally most scientists are curious. Our daily work requires us to be creative, take risks, and have a sense of passion for the work we do. The muse of a scientist lies in the continuous sense of adventure that comes from trying to uncover the unknowns in our projects. We don’t have to look too far for an example of an established scientist who struts his scientific muscles regularly. In our own Tufts community, our very own Dean, Dan Jay, is a visual artist who combines art and science to create pieces that express inspiration in science. This art competition was definitely a testament to our communities vibrant artistic abilities. Thank you to all those who participated and keep a look out for upcoming events and competitions.


“Daniel Jay.” Daniel Jay | School of the Museum of Fine Arts | Tufts University,

Book Review: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing

It’s not uncommon to hear young, aspiring scientists say, “I hate writing. That’s why I’m going into science!” Plot twist: we do a lot of writing as scientists. Writing is pervasive in this field. We write to disseminate our research to the wider scientific community, to get funding, to get hired. It’s surprising that, as a community, we don’t devote much time to formally training students in the writing process.

Enter Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist, who wrote “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing” to help address this gap in training. He draws from the scientific study of scientific writing, filling in the gaps with his own experiences with the writing process. The result is a book that not only advises readers on what to include in different written works, but also provides exercises that can be used to improve their use of the craft.

When scientists write about their research, the goal is mainly to convince other scientists that the body of work is important, and completely necessary, to the advancement of a particular scientific field. To do this, any arguments made need to be clear and well-founded, easily transferable from the page to the reader’s brain. Heard addresses this by offering his reader details about what writing actually is, beginning with the history of scientific writing and its unique evolution.

Throughout the book, Heard draws his reader to several conclusions, including three crucial tips: first, that any body of work must be crystal clear (in his words, it should “seem telepathic”); second that making note of things you like when you are reading can bolster your own writing; and third, that every word should be considered and removed if unnecessary. These conclusions apply across the board—not just to manuscripts, but also to grants and other types of scientific communication.

While a book on writing may not seem especially interesting, Heard’s advice is invaluable to the developing writer. Reading this, or a similar book, should be considered critical training for every student of the sciences.

“The Prize” by Geoffrey M. Cooper, PhD is a thriller for the dramatic scientist in all of us

I was excited to learn a few months ago that my former PI from BU, Dr. Geoffrey Cooper, was publishing a fictional novel about the competitive world of scientific discovery and competition. I’m sharing a short review for you guys to hopefully inspire you to pick up a copy of your own to enjoy this entertaining and relatable thriller!

A fictional novel that tells the story of two professors racing to discover the first successful Alzheimer’s drug, written by Geoffrey Cooper PhD., a professor of Biology at BU. The story follows a chronological timeline to detail how the insatiable need to achieve a novel discovery can drive scientists to perform inconceivable acts. Pam Weller acts as the protagonist, a young assistant professor studying Alzheimer’s, vying for tenure at the fictional Boston-based research institute, the Langmere. Opposing Pam is Eric Prescott, a well-established and older professor at the Institute for Advanced Neuroscience in Cambridge, also a fictional and supposedly more established institute, compared to the Langmere. Whereas Eric is credited with the establishment of an Alzheimer’s mouse, Pam is building her budding career on a novel cell culture model of Alzheimer’s in which primary mouse brain cells grow plaques and die in vitro. Pam’s lab’s efforts are directed towards screening tens of thousands of compounds in her cell culture model in hopes of identifying a drug that can stop or reverse the formation of plaques to rescue the cells—a much speedier technique, compared to the screening of compounds in Alzheimer’s mice. With Pam’s tenure review coming up quickly, the pressure is on for her to make a truly groundbreaking discovery. When Pam’s postdoc Holly happens to identify the right compound, she greedily decides to keep the data to herself in hopes of advancing her own career. In an exciting and dreadful twist, Holly uses her discovery to team up with Eric to steal the drug, destroy Pam’s credibility, and walk away with all the glory and a Nobel Prize to boot.

This book is a true thriller as Pam works to uncover the truth and gain credit where it is truly due. The Prize is an easy-to-read page-turner. It’s an exciting and relatable story that is sure to entertain, especially for us, as we are deep in the trenches of scientific discovery!

That being said, hopefully none of us are resorting to tactics as evil and dramatic as Eric and Holly. It’s just a Nature paper and full tenure and the Nobel Prize… nothing worth murdering anyone over, right?

The Prize is available for purchase on

Humans of Sackler: Becca Silver, “Enthusiasm was contagious (no pun intended)”


I’m Ila Anand, a fifth-year student in the Microbiology program. I’ve recently taken over the “Humans of Sackler” portion of the Newsletter, which was originally pioneered by Andrew Hooper. In this issue I had the honor of getting to know our GSC president, Rebecca Silver, better known as “Becca.” It was a delight sitting down with this die-hard Bruins fan and discussing a variety of topics—from finding out she loves butter pecan ice cream and Figaro’s to discovering how she first broke into science. I hope you enjoy our conversation and are better acquainted with our GSC president!

IA: Hi Becca! Let’s start with what were you doing before you started graduate school?

RS: I was having a good time in college at the University of Maine in Orono! Besides the academics, my favorite part of college was having my friends nearby and being able to spend time with them whenever I wanted. I had a pretty diverse group of friends in college and I still keep in touch with them. I’m originally from Portland, Maine and spending time with close friends was also a big part of my childhood. My favorite memories are from Fourth of July when my friends and I would hang out at a lake house. The lifestyle in Maine is generally much more slow-paced. That is actually one of the biggest differences I noticed when I started grad school—there’s much more of a “rush” in Boston compared to Portland, where the people are more laid-back.

IA: Sounds like there are definitely some cultural differences between the cities. Where else have you traveled to in the past?

RS: I’ve mostly traveled on the East coast. I’ve visited the majority of the North East and I’ve also visited Georgia and Florida. I’ve actually never traveled to the West Coast but if I had the opportunity to attend a conference I would totally go. I also really want to ski in the mountains of Colorado at some point in the future. Outside of the U.S. I’ve traveled to Canada and Bermuda. I visited Bermuda when I was fairly young (ten years old) and I vividly remember that time period because two weeks before the vacation I had pneumonia. At the time it was awful because I missed school and was trying to recover (I had a lot of Pediasure!), but in the end, because I also went on vacation, I ultimately took a month off of school and my teachers didn’t assign me any extra homework. You could say that was my first introduction to the infectious disease field!


IA: That does sound awful! So when did you actually become interested in pursuing research and studying science?

RS: Well, I was a bioengineer back in college and honestly pursuing research was a decision I made on the whim. I took an immunology elective class my junior year of college and quickly realized I really like immunology. The class was much more interesting than any of my bioengineering classes- the lectures were awe-inspiring! The professor really emphasized infectious disease clinical examples like super gross rashes all over the body, etc. The professor was so excited and his enthusiasm was contagious (no pun intended). After taking the class, that summer I took the GRE and applied for grad school the fall of my senior year. It was literally a 6-month turnaround from being a bioengineer to wanting to be an immunologist!


IA: What was your first experience working in a lab?

RS: My first experience doing lab work was during a Co-Op internship at Idexx, which is a veterinary biotech in Portland, ME. I interned at Idexx during the summer going into my junior year of college. I was involved in developing a lateral flow assay that is similar to an ELISA and this rapid immunoassay detected digging worms in infested dog feces. It was a triple detection assay so it was able to detect whipworm, roundworm, and hookworm. My internship involved developing positive and negative controls for the assay. My boss at Idexx played on the same recreational hockey team that I did in Maine and she was a Tufts alumnus. Later, when I decided I wanted to go to grad school, I reached out to her for a reference and she’s the one who influenced me to apply to and attend Tufts Sackler.

IA: That’s really neat that you play rec-hockey. How did you get into that? What else do you like to do outside of bench research?

RS: I picked up hockey in high school when I was fourteen. My friend asked me to try out for the school team because they needed more people and now it’s one my favorite activities to do. I currently play on a Greater Boston rec-team called South Shore Women’s Hockey League. We have a lot of fun! In addition to hockey, I like to run. I run with a group in Jamaica Plains called the Forest Hill Runners and my favorite spot to run is in Peters Hill in the Harvard Arboretum. It has the best view of the whole city, in my opinion. I also like to cook and play video games—specifically strategy games, like Civilization 6. As GSC president, I’ve also been heavily involved in planning the Sackler relays. Our plans are kind of top secret but I can tell you that this year we’re going to have relays in June rather than July and we’re going to have an awesome raffle. Of course, my favorite part about relays is winning- go Immunogenetics!

Sci-Art Contest 2017: And the winner is…

Last month the Sackler Insight hosted a contest to find the best science-based art (“sci-art”) at Sackler. All twelve entries were posted to the Sackler Graduate Student Council Instagram account (@SacklerGSC) and the Sackler student Facebook group. The winning contributor will receive a $25 Visa gift card!

The results are in! 174 voters from both Instagram and Facebook weighed in on their favorite pictures. Our lucky first place winner is Mary H. from Microbiology with her photo “An enteroid supernova,” which received 65 votes. Runners-up included Rana A. from PDD with “Making the best of a bad Western” (61 votes) and Rob C. from CMDB with “Monday Blues – Screening One-Bead-One-Compound Peptide Libraries” (39 votes).

Congratulations Mary, and thank you to everyone who participated! You can check out the pictures below:

Notes from the North – CMDB first year visit to MMCRI

We frozen few doing our thesis work in the CMDB and genetics programs are always looking for ways to highlight some of the excellent resources we have at our institutes. Last month I had the pleasure of hosting the CMDB first year students and introducing them to the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough, Maine. They heard from the faculty here about potential rotation projects, but perhaps more importantly about the larger on-going projects that could become collaborative efforts between Maine and Boston. Here are some pictures of their visit and a link to the updated MMCRI website in case you too are interested in finding out about current MMCRI research.


Left to right CMDB first years Brittany Ahlstedt, Alexander Hu, Alice Meng, and Jackson Fatherree at Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park.


Left to right CMDB students Alice Meng, Brittany Ahlstedt, Jess Davis-Knowlton, Jackson Fatherree, and Alexander Hu at Duckfat in Portland.

Science Sketches at MMCRI

Very recently I found myself in a revelationary conversation with a non-scientific colleague as we were planning our annual exhibition for the Maine Science Festival. We needed a display that would highlight the molecular biology work we do at MMCRI that would be exciting and comprehensible to a broad audience plus a related hands-on activity that could be completed in just a few minutes. Pulling from the expertise of the folks attending the festival, I proposed that we have a display on our use of 3D silk scaffolds in modeling cancer. One of the hallmarks of the cancer cells compared to healthy cells is reduced lipid content, so the hands-on activity could be a demonstration of dye solubility with the explanation that this is how we measure lipid content in our cell populations.

Well, about halfway into the conversation I found that I had completely failed to convey A. the link between the silk scaffold models and the hands-on activity and B. the importance of dye solubility in highlighting specific structures and substances. Fortunately, my colleague asked me to take several steps back and was able to ask very specific questions such that I was able to reform my explanation for her. In the end, my idea was passed along, but the episode highlighted to me that despite all the opportunities I have to explain my science to both scientific and lay audiences I still need lots more practice.

This past summer at MMCRI we had an excellent opportunity to think in great depth about how to present our work in a concise and comprehensible manner: we produced Science Sketches! A Science Sketch is a two-minute or less video summary of a scientific topic. I have seen examples of more universal basic scientific principles as well as very specific projects.

All sketches start as an idea or concept that the writer wants to convey to their audience. The writer must decide who their audience will be, as this will dictate the vocabulary and the level of explanation that needs to be employed. Science Sketches has a great tutorial to help writers as they get started telling their stories. They recommend a 300-word script with no jargon that has been proofread by several colleagues and assessed using online tools that highlight terms above a given reading level. With a complete script, you can start putting together a storyboard that illustrates every sentence.

The sketches generally utilize pen and ink drawing on copy paper or white board, but they can also employ cut paper shapes, building blocks, or other props to illustrate an idea. They can be made very rapidly and at very little expense as they are often filmed using a cell-phone camera mounted on a ring stand.  The writer films him or herself drawing or moving paper cut outs, records his or her script, then uses video editing software to compress the video and match it to the audio. The writer can take as long as he or she likes drawing the images as they can be sped up to whatever speed is necessary using the editing software.

Video summaries of scientific concepts have been around for a long time, and I am particularly fond of this trippy vintage recording of translation, but organizing an approachable tutorial that anyone can carry out is a novel model. Science Sketches arose at the Max Plank Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden Germany as a collaboration between the institute’s postdoc program manager, Lisa Dennison, PhD, and the Hyman lab. More recently, Science Sketches has focused on improving their public engagement, so Liam Holt, PhD of NYU, became involved and helped them develop their science fundamentals video series.

I found this summer’s workshop challenging but rewarding. I had to take a high altitude view of my project again after months of detailed experiments in order to highlight the key features of my work and keep my audience’s attention for the full two minutes. It also gave me an excuse to binge watch lots of science vignettes, making me feel really well rounded and intelligent for a day, as I decided how I wanted to construct my own video. Hope you enjoy!

Humans of Sackler: Patrick Davis, “I’ve been Accused of being a Science Robot”

Humans of Sackler, 23 March 2017

Patrick Davis, Neuroscience, Fifth-Year M.D./Ph.D. Student: “I’ve been Accused of being a Science Robot”

For this issue of Humans of Sackler, I had the opportunity to sit down with Patrick Davis, an M.D./Ph.D. student in the Neuroscience program. Although I see medical students coming and going around Sackler every day, I confess I haven’t gotten to know many of them – or much at all about the medical school curriculum. So it was a great pleasure to learn more about this from somebody who is as passionate about medicine as he is about science research; Patrick and I had a particularly engrossing conversation about the differences between these two kinds of higher education, and I hope you, dear reader, enjoy and benefit from it as much as I did!


Young Pat with the Chestnut Hill Academy Theoretical Physics Group

AH: How did you become interested in studying science?

PD: I had a physics teacher in 11th and 12th grade – Marty Baumberger – who was just the best teacher ever. He got me so into physics that I started a Theoretical Physics group at Chestnut Hill Academy… I went to Brown University as a physics major. I loved the open curriculum, but I was a terrible student. I didn’t do well my first year, so I switched to an economics major for about a year, and that was completely unfulfilling. Eventually I came to my senses and switched to biology… The thing about Brown: it’s chaos. There are no required classes, so you just mix and match and do whatever. There are requirements for your major, but you could theoretically never take a math class if you never wanted to. What happened to me was the best-case scenario: the first year and a half made me a more dedicated student. I learned that if I’m not doing something I really want to do then I’m going to be lazy, and if I don’t work hard then I’m not going to do well.


At a Macklis Lab get-together, chatting with friend and mentor Alex Poulopoulos (left)

AH: What was your first experience with neuroscience research?

PD: When I graduated from Brown, I didn’t know right away that I wanted to do med school or neuroscience. I ended up working at Jeff Macklis’s lab at Mass General Hospital for two years after college, and that was my first real exposure to neuroscience. Jeff made his name with a series of studies on induction of neurogenesis in the neocortex. I met Alex Poulopoulos there, who has been a mentor ever since, and a very good friend. I would credit Alex almost entirely with piquing my interest in neuroscience, but also with my development as a scientist. I love to come up with an idea, test it, go through the whole process myself, interpret my own data, talk to other people about their data – I like the actual scientific process. Alex just started his own lab at University of Maryland School of Medicine; anybody reading this, please apply to his lab! You could not ask for a better person to work for. He’s interested in how neural circuits self-organize, which is extremely interesting to me as well.


With pals from Brown University

AH: Why did you choose the M.D./Ph.D. path and how have your medical and scientific training differed?

PD: I could never be just an M.D. because I love science too much. The fundamental quality of a scientist is curiosity; medicine is more like service and helping people, curiosity about the people themselves, empathy. The preclinical years are a lot of memorization, but once you get into the hospital, it’s more like an apprenticeship. You’re learning how to do the day-to-day things that a doctor does: how to walk through clinical decision-making, interview a patient, present that information to other doctors, how to work with your hands if you’re doing a surgery rotation… Because medicine is an applied science, the goal there is all oriented around the health of the patient; I don’t think that’s really what science is about. For a long time, medicine has been done in a very parochial way: people in this hospital do it this way, people in another hospital do it another way. Evidence-based medicine still gets a lot of pushback. Take stenting for example: doing a coronary artery stent for someone with angina. About half of the stents in this country are done for stable angina – chest pain when you exercise, but not an acute threat to your health – and it’s now been shown over and over again that that is no better, and possibly worse, than just giving them statins and blood pressure reduction medication and telling them to eat their vegetables and exercise a little bit. It’s because doctors think in terms of, ‘I see it happen, it intuitively makes a lot more sense to me, so it must be this.’ Of course the lines are blurred in real life, but a true scientist would say, ‘We have to trust the evidence, why don’t we look at what’s causing the increased risk of doing the stent, or why do statins work?’ The curiosity that is absolutely necessary to be a good scientist is not necessary to be a good doctor… The types of mind that are selected for by these two professions are almost non-overlapping, they’re completely different.


Even science robots enjoy a night on the town every now and then

AH: What do you like to do when you’re not studying medicine or neuroscience, and how do you find the time and energy to do it all?

PD: I love to teach, I really like being in the didactic role and seeing people learn and discover things for themselves. I tutor for the MCAT, I used to tutor for the SAT, I’ve volunteered for things like middle school science fair mentoring and the Brain Bee. These kids in the Brain Bee were extremely impressive; they knew more facts for this test than I would have! Thomas Papouin and I also started a class trying to teach grad students the basics of the scientific method. There’s a whole rich history of how to think formally and scientifically; and the more aware you are of it and the more you practice it – like by applying these things to your own rotation project or qualifying exam – the better you get at it. The notion that, by just reading papers, this will happen – for some people, maybe it will, but the purpose of the program is to maximize the probability of this happening for everybody… I’ve been accused of being a science robot: the joke between Alex Jones and me is that when I get home, I have a scotch and read PubMed… The M.D./Ph.D.s that I’ve spoken to, the ones that succeed, are recharging one half of their brain while the other one works. Like a shark, like a science shark!


Relaxing by a picturesque mountain lake in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru

AH: Have you had many chances to travel outside of the U.S.?

PD: I’ve traveled through Europe a bit, I’ve been to Peru, Brazil… I was in Berlin at one point, and I decided to just hop on a train and go to Prague. I spent two full days and a night there, and it was awesome. Most of the people spoke English at tourist-type places, but it was fun to walk around, take pictures, be completely by myself… I had a Cormac McCarthy book called “All the Pretty Horses”, and it was nice just being on the train, reading or watching the sites, then walking around the city and going to a café for a coffee or beer. I don’t know much else about Prague, but aesthetically, I can’t imagine a prettier city. Part of why I enjoyed the city so much was because I didn’t expect it to be that way: of course when you go to Rome, you know that one of the greatest civilizations existed here and that every step you take is rich with history, but I didn’t expect this in Prague.


Enthusiastically sharing data at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting

AH: What topic have you studied for your thesis work?

PD: Under Leon Reijmers’ mentorship, I’m trying to figure out how ‘extinction learning’ happens in the brain: it’s a medically-relevant type of learning that underlies treatment for psychiatric disorders like PTSD. In extinction learning, the patient repeatedly gets exposed to the thing they’re afraid of, you gradually increase the ‘stimulus intensity’, and they learn that it’s safe. So for example, if they’re afraid of spiders, you would show them a picture of a spider at first, then maybe have them in a room where there’s a spider in a corner, then work your way up to having them handle a spider. What I’ve found is that there’s a particular cell type in the amygdala – the parvalbumin interneuron – which acts a critical hub for this kind of learning: if you silence these cells, then you shut down the process of extinction learning. Now I’m using that finding as a jumping-off point to really figure out what’s going on. I’m manipulating parvalbumin interneurons with different frequencies of stimulation and seeing how the amygdala – and the rest of the brain – responds to that. It looks like I can ‘toggle’ the fear state up or down just by controlling this specific type of neuron!


Contemplating the mysteries of the universe

AH: Where do you see the field of neuroscience heading in the near future?

PD: I think that we have tools in neuroscience that 15 years ago, you couldn’t have even fathomed. Not just optogenetics, but recording techniques, chemogenetics, optical electrophysiology, simultaneous local field potentials with single units, closed loop systems… The engineers like Ed Boyden have done us a great favor. But now it’s time for us to step up. I think that in the next 2, 5, 10, 15 years there are going to be many, many discoveries that are really going to blow things open. Once we fall out of love with the mere application of modern tools to hypotheses we already kind of assumed to be true, then we’re going to ask the question: how? You have to record neurons’ endogenous activity, then do experiments that are really informative about what’s going on. In neuroscience, because we have these techniques, we can start asking this kind of question.