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Creative Minds

From Songbird Science to Salsa Dancing

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Erich Jarvis spends his days at the Rockefeller University, New York, studying songbirds and searching for clues about the origins of language. But at least two nights a week, you won’t find this highly accomplished neurobiologist mulling over the latest neuroscience results or shooting an email to colleagues about their ongoing efforts to sequence bird genomes. He’ll be in the dance studio, practicing his latest salsa dancing moves.

In fact, before even considering a career as a scientist, Jarvis was a dancer. He danced ballet in grade school, later enrolling in New York’s High School of the Performing Arts as a dance major. Between academic classes, he spent three hours each day practicing ballet at school and, as a teen, another three hours each night practicing solos and pas de deux at the renowned Joffrey Ballet School and, later, the Alvin Ailey American Dance School. Jarvis even received an invitation as a high school senior to audition for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.


A Scientist and Conservation Photographer

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These stunning images of animals were taken by Susan McConnell, whose photographs have appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, Nature’s Best Photography, Africa Geographic, and a number of other publications. But photography is just part of her professional life. McConnell is best known as a developmental neurobiologist at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and an elected member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

How did McConnell find the time while tracing the development of the brain’s biocircuitry to launch a second career as a nature photographer? Her answer: Every research career has its seasons. When McConnell launched her lab in 1989 at the age of 31, she was up to her eyeballs recruiting staff, writing research grants, and pursuing many different leads in her quest to understand how neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex are produced, differentiated, and then wired together into functional circuits.


From Juggling to Biomechanics

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For any aspiring juggler, the path to greatness requires mastering the dreaded “five-club backcross.” It’s a move that begins by juggling five clubs in front of your body and transitions to doing the same thing behind your back! Dr. Noah Cowan has nailed it once, and vows to do it again one day.

But this NIH-funded neuroscientist and bioengineer, who directs the Locomotion in Mechanical and Biological Systems (LIMBS) Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University’s Whiting School of Engineering in Baltimore, doesn’t have much time to practice his juggling these days. Instead, he is focusing on ways to use virtual juggling, such as the ball-and-paddle system shown in the video above, to explore the biomechanics of motion. His ultimate goal?  To apply what he’s learned to advance the fields of robotics, prosthetics development, and physical therapy.


A Scientist Whose Music Gives Comfort

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Over the past few years, my blog has highlighted a wide range of Creative Minds from across biomedical research. But creative minds come in many forms, and, for a change of pace, I’d like to kick back this August and highlight some talented scientists who are also doing amazing things in the arts, from abstract painting to salsa dancing to rock’n’roll.

My first post introduces you to Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a computational geneticist at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, Cambridge, and one of Time Magazine’s 2014 People of the Year for her work to contain the last major Ebola outbreak in West Africa. When she’s not in the lab studying viruses, Sabeti is the hard-driving voice of the indie rock band Thousand Days that has been rocking Boston for more than a decade.


Measuring Brain Chemistry

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Anne Andrews

Anne Andrews
Credit: From the American Chemical Society’s “Personal Stories of Discovery”

Serotonin is one of the chemical messengers that nerve cells in the brain use to communicate. Modifying serotonin levels is one way that antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are thought to work and help people feel better. But the precise nature of serotonin’s role in the brain is largely unknown.

That’s why Anne Andrews set out in the mid-1990s as a fellow at NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health to explore changes in serotonin levels in the brains of anxious mice. But she quickly realized it wasn’t possible. The tools available for measuring serotonin—and most other neurochemicals in the brain—couldn’t offer the needed precision to conduct her studies.

Instead of giving up, Andrews did something about it. In the late 1990s, she began formulating an idea for a neural probe to make direct and precise measurements of brain chemistry. Her progress was initially slow, partly because the probe she envisioned was technologically ahead of its time. Now at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) more than 15 years later, she’s nearly there. Buoyed by recent scientific breakthroughs, the right team to get the job done, and the support of a 2017 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, Andrews expects to have the first fully functional devices ready within the next two years.


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