Emerging Neuroscientists and Young Technologies—or was it the other way around?
A double interview with two early career researchers
October 4, 2022
This blog post is part of VIB Neuroscience in the spotlight.
Two early career researchers, two cutting-edge technology platforms. A double interview with Çagatay Aydin (NERF) and Marie Mulier (NERF / VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research) gives us a unique glimpse into the activity of the brain and how exciting it can be to push the limits and applications of emerging technologies to get there.
Meet Çagatay—a quick story on how a Turkish electronics engineer ended up as one of Flanders’ most promising young researchers:
“I got hooked at a biomedical engineering course by professor Istefanopulos, the founder of the first-ever biomedical institute in Turkey. Noticing my enthusiasm, he invited me to a national biomedical symposium, opening my eyes to the latest advances in neuroscience. I first did my master’s in biomedical engineering at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and worked on memory-related brain networks in human subjects. Next, I moved to Belgium to pursue a PhD in the Bonin lab. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Aydin’s crucial role in the international team effort to develop the second generation of Neuropixels—advanced probes to measure brain activity in the lab—secured him a spot on the shortlist of the Eos Pipette award 2022, showcasing the most promising young researchers in Flanders. He won the public vote with a decisive margin.
“It has been a major honor to be part of such a big international collaboration working with big shots in our field, including two(!) Nobel laureates,” says Aydin, who was the first to succeed in recording the activity of thousands of individual neurons from multiple brain regions for multiple days.
Marie Mulier followed a different path: after graduating with an MSc in biophysics, she joined the Voets lab at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain & Disease Research to study pain mechanisms. During her PhD, Mulier tried to explain why inflamed tissue is so painful. She found that an increase in TRPM3, an ion channel that is expressed in peripheral nerve endings, plays an important role in neuronal hypersensitivity.
Tech innovation is one of her main drivers. “I have always been most fascinated by new techniques. The excitement of being able to visualize processes that we knew were there but could not see.”
Pain mechanisms and self-recognition
For her postdoc, Mulier joins forces with the Urban lab at NERF, pioneers in 3D functional ultrasound brain imaging. Mulier: “I want to better understand the neuronal processes and mechanisms that underlie inflammation and chronic pain. To date, read-outs for pain are largely based on behavioral reactions to painful stimuli, but these results translate poorly to human chronic pain therapies. Joining the Urban lab at NERF, I will use the 3D functional ultrasound imaging technique ‘fUSI’ to evaluate pain relief in a more accurate, unbiased way, which will hopefully allow us to validate new pain killers over a long time period.”
Also for a pioneer like Aydin, technology is a means to an end. Meanwhile graduated and continuing his research as a postdoc in the Haesler lab, he uses Neuropixels probes to study how we recognize, process and respond to smell.
“More specifically, I focus on self-recognition, i.e. how we can recognize our own smell, and distinguish it from for example our your partner’s smell or the smell of a banana.”
Problems with sensory processing, self-recognition and social aspects are common features of autism and psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, underscoring the clinical relevance of fundamental research like Aydin’s, using primarily mice as a model organism to unravel how the brain acts and reacts in response to sensory stimuli.
Never stop innovating
“The Haesler lab at NERF has built a strong expertise in dissecting cellular identity, anatomical connectivity and neural activity of brain circuits in behavior, an ideal environment for a researcher like me, combining electronics and biomedical engineering,” says Aydin.
“I am very excited that more recently, I am also applying my experience in fundamental neuroscience and measuring brain activity in new projects of a more translational nature. What we basically try to do is detect electrical signatures of brain related disorders that could be helpful to guide drug discovery.”
Drug discovery is Mulier’s end-goal as well. “It’s very clear that we need to move away from the relatively simple reflex-based tests many labs use to measure pain towards more sophisticated behavioral recordings,” she explains. “Using the fUSI technique pioneered in the Urban lab, we are able to record whole-brain activity in awake, head-fixed animals and simultaneously measure pain-specific behavioral outputs such as pupil growth, paw withdrawal, whisker movement and even grimaces.”
Aydin: “My long-term career goal is to lead my own research group—staying true to what I think is my core strength and interest: combining my background in electronics, biomedical science and neuroscience to explore brain circuits and how they steer our behavior.”
Mulier hopes TRPM3-based drugs could be helpful for chronic pain patients. “In terms of my own research ambitions, I would like to visualize the entire pain pathway over the coming years, ranging from the peripheral nerve endings, the spinal cord all the way to the brain. These basic insights will help us to monitor how chronic inflammatory pain develops and of course how to treat it.”
What do these two young researchers believe is the secret to academic success?
“I am sure you have heard it all before,” says Aydin, “but in my case, it rings true: never give up and follow your passion. Failure is part of the job, so you need to be both resilient and ambitious to keep going.”
Mulier concurs: “Neuroscience is a fascinating, yet challenging field. As long as you are enthusiastic, support is within reach. Be sure to use the feedback from others to become a better scientist. The willingness to help each other and work towards common goals is something I appreciate a lot about working in research!”
Always aim for excitement and fun—they both conclude. Sooner or later, results will follow.
If you want to dive deeper into brain health and disease, explore some of our resources, like our Alzheimer's facts series, or keep an eye out for interesting news and events where our researchers share new insights. We also have plenty of open positions for people eager to join us on our multi-faceted mission to unravel the mysteries of our brain.
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