Here’s why I became a neuroscientist

Brains come in all colours (Timm staining of mouse hippocampus with Warhol colouring; T. Ferreira, E. Audero, EMBL)

An intern in my lab recently asked me why I became a neuroscientist – he had read this piece about how it’s all just luck. I’m not so sure. I am convinced there are explicit and hidden environmental (and a few genetic) influences that restrict and channel our behaviours during our lifetime. It’s only the fiercely independent that escape these influences – and then that is usually itself a reaction to them.

I agree that the triggering factors are rather indirect and each of them alone is seemingly of little relevance. But I also think this is the case for all professions and interests. Here’s my story for what it’s worth: When I was in junior high school my father (a physicist) said to me in passing that the two most exciting areas of science were astrophysics and molecular biology. In those years I frequently went to the public library to browse University catalogs (genetic trait?) and I noticed that some of them had departments called ‘Biophysics’ – what better way to combine the two best, be a fulfilling son to my father, and nevertheless do something different from him (N.B. not entirely healthy relationship with parents can be a major stimulating factor). I went on to study biophysics at university and later pursue a PhD in a department with a major biophysics component. However, in grad school I ended up in a lab whose PI I thought was particularly smart and charismatic working in the area of transcriptional regulation in Drosophila – completely abandoning my biophysics training. After a stimulating and successful PhD, I nevertheless realised that I needed something more challenging. I quit research and became a public high school science teacher in Manhattan – a conscious decision to force myself out of my comfort zone, something that was extremely rewarding and eye-opening (never worked harder in my life and found myself on stage every minute of the day) and where I learned social and life skills that I use each day, particularly with my kids. During that time I was introduced to the book “Listening to Prozac” about how normal people were trying the drug and feeling ‘better than well’. That triggered an old interest in observing and understanding people’s motivations and how these might be driven by nature & nurture. I stopped teaching and returned to research to identify the receptors that mediate the antidepressant effects of Prozac, tried some of the drug myself, and became hooked on the behavioural neuroscience of emotional traits. I think this sort of path is very common – a mix of strong early environmental effects that channel and expose your interests and chance events combined with your character that leads you to your adult life path. Maybe we can call that luck.

Author: Cornelius Gross

Neurobiologist interested in the molecular and cellular mechanisms of the control of instinctive behavior associated with defense, reproduction, and ingestion; EMBL Group Leader since 2003, Senior Scientist & Deputy Head of Unit since 2009, postdoc with Rene Hen at Columbia University, PhD with William McGinnis at Yale University 1995

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