Tell us about your career so far
I came to the UK nine years ago to do my PhD at UCL. It was unique because I had two supervisors, Angus Silver and Thomas Mrsic-Flogel, but having guidance from both of them really inspired me. It meant that I got to work on a few different projects related to the primary visual cortex– the part of the brain that encodes visual information and enables visual perception. Initially, I was studying how we perceive details and global features during natural visual scenes by looking at the activity of hundreds of neurons in the visual cortex. For another project, I studied the rules by which neurons with known sensory functions connect to and thus interact with each other.
My lab at UCL moved to Switzerland when I started my postdoc and I followed. Here, I worked with Sonja Hofer, (who is actually Thomas’ wife) and continued to study connectivity, but this time focusing on long-range connections and looking at what information individual neurons receive from different parts of the visual field.
I moved back to the UK for a fellowship from the royal commission at the University of Oxford. I was in Andrew King’s lab, looking at how the brain integrates sensory information in order to guide behaviour.
How did you become interested in neuroscience?
I know it’s a cliché, but I’ve been fascinated by the brain since I was young. I went to study biology at university in my home country of Argentina knowing that neuroscience was my preferred area. However, it was a very broad, six-year degree and I wasn’t able to specialise until my fourth year. I often found this very frustrating. I remember, in my second year, travelling to neuroscience conferences and paying for them myself. I think I even camped overnight a few times! These small local conferences were very inspiring as an undergraduate student.
I can see the value of broad study now though. It meant that I gained experience of many different fields, from ecology to physiology. I was even able to dip into areas of chemistry and physics. On reflection, I think having to consider scientific questions from other disciplines, alongside my own work, has been beneficial as I’ve progressed in my career.
Can you tell us a bit more about your research at the Crick?
I’m continuing with my focus on connectivity in the brain and how it gives rise to our perception of the world and our actions. There is still so much that we don’t know about the organisation of neuronal circuits and I want to be able to go into as great a detail as possible. That’s my plan for my first six years at the Crick anyway.
More specifically, I’m looking at the superior colliculus which is a region of the brain that combines and prioritises sensory information; for example, it detects the relevance of sensory stimuli, and steers attention to them in space via appropriate motor actions.
Ultimately, I’d like to be able to apply my knowledge of the superior colliculus to other areas; for example, to wider brain function and processing of information.
What prompted your move to the Crick?
My fellowship at Oxford gave me the time and freedom to finish some of my other work and apply for positions. I felt it was the right point in my career to be thinking about leading a lab.
Plus, the Crick itself was a big appeal for me - it’s hard to imagine a better research environment for a first leadership position. The support I’ve received so far has been amazing and I think being here will have a great impact on my research, particularly the scale of ambition. Some of the experiments I have planned would be called unrealistic anywhere else.
How are you settling in to life at the Crick?
I’m really enjoying it so far – I’ve found the place where I belong. Everyone here is so positive and has a thorough attitude towards their research.
I’ve been lucky to start with another new group leader, Johnny Kohl, and we’ve been able share information and help one another. The other group leaders have also been extremely supportive and welcoming.
In my lab, setting up has happened very quickly. In only three weeks, I’ve had two microscopes built. One is for mapping connections in brain slices and the other is for looking at neuronal populations in mice performing certain behavioural tasks.
Have there been any challenges?
To suddenly be the person with the responsibility for the function of the whole lab is new to me, and it’s been quite nerve-racking at times. There are a lot of things to think about all at once; for example, getting the equipment and recruiting lab members.
Currently it’s just me in my lab but I’ve got a postdoc starting in May and I’m in the process of recruiting two PhD students. The challenge, which I think is always the case for new group leaders, is competing with well-established labs.
What job would you be doing in an alternative universe?
I’d run away with the circus! I used to do trapeze when I moved to London for my PhD and went to Circus Space to train most evenings. I do miss it now.