Down the Memory Lane with Tomás Ryan

05/04/2018: This week’s interview is answered by Tomás Ryan, an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Ireland. From knowing Tomás personally, I can say that he is not only one of the most promising scientists in memory research, but also a genuine supporter of efforts in science communication, equality and early career support. I am therefore particularly happy to share this interview with you this week.



How did you get here?

I completed my undergraduate degree in Genetics at Trinity College Dublin. The year I began at the University was the year that the human genome was published, and I quickly realized that all of my burning questions about genetics and what constitutes biological life could be answered simply by reading textbooks and journal articles. During my third undergraduate degree I attended a guest lecture by a Drosophila (fruit fly) geneticist who’s research focus was the formation of long-term memory. I walked in to that lecture as a geneticist, and I walked out a hopeful neuroscientist. After following the speaker to the pub I attempted to persuade him to take me as a summer research student. Instead, he sent me to his close collaborator’s group at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India. There I spent months developing behavioural assays to study olfactory conditioning in fruit fly maggots and immersed myself in the neurobiology of memory. After this experience I decided to do my PhD in the molecular biology of behaviour, but at some point in my fourth undergraduate year I became a vertebrate snob. I arrived at the very unoriginal, and flatly wrong position of assuming that to understand memory one needed to focus on a more complex mammalian organism – the mouse. Partly because of this bias, and partly because of good fortune, I moved to the University of Cambridge and Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute to undertake my PhD in molecular neuroscience. My PhD experience was typical in all the good and bad ways, but I had a supervisor who was uniquely liberal and encouraging in project direction and allowed me to integrate my background in evolutionary genetics with molecular neurobiology. While this approach was productive, I became very disillusioned with the radically reductionist epistemics of molecular neuroscience. We would engineer the mouse genome in very, very specific ways, and identify highly specialized behavioural and physiological phenotypes. But then we would literally mash-up whole brains and do gross biochemical experiments from which we derived cartoon-like models of what we thought might be going on in the brain. I knew this approach would never really answer the questions I had about memory. Fortuitously, I found myself spending increasing amounts of time in the Experimental Psychology department at Cambridge. Through attending seminars and conducting experiments there I found my own scientific taste, and I learned how to integrate serious theory with hypothesis-driven experimental design. But I also saw that the techniques of behavioural neuroscience were stuck in the 1970’s and most practitioners had an overly conservative scepticism of any new methodology. I knew this attitude was not only wrong, but unsustainable, owing to the development of optogenetics by Karl Deisseroth and others at Stanford. So I sought a Postdoctoral lab that was addressing big questions in the memory field and was not afraid of using the latest experimental techniques regardless of risk. I found myself in the group of Susumu Tonegawa at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) working on new methodology for labelling and manipulating specific memory representations (engrams) in the mouse brain. With an uniquely outstanding group of colleagues I spent six exciting years attempting to moderately push the boundaries of what we know about memory engrams. In 2017, and after over a decade abroad, I returned to Dublin to set-up my own research group because I think that Ireland (and Europe) is an excellent environment to grow a new lab, and I see many opportunities for developing the research environment here. My research group’s over-arching aim is to understand how memory, and instinct can be stored in the brain.

Shortly described: what is the focus of your research?

Understanding how information can be sustainably and plausibly stored in the animal brain, and how this process is modulated by learning, development, and evolution

What is it that fascinates you about research and science?

I am most fascinated by the mind, and how it comes into being through our experiences, our development, and our biology. I want to understand how we got here, and use that knowledge to help inform how we may develop in the future.

Can you name the biggest challenges?

The brain is the most complex structure in existence. Mind and behavior are two related and extremely perplexing phenomena that we still do not have adequate theoretical frameworks with which to explain. Yet research into neuroscience requires the integration of all three aspects of animal life, as well as the mastery of innumerable and constantly developing experimental techniques. Doing this is obviously full of immense challenges, but we have clearly made some progress in the past 100 years so there is every reason to be optimistic about the next. I am however very concerned that the biggest challenge facing the future of science is a degenerative political climate in combination with dwindling resources and over-population. For this reason I think academics have a responsibility to engage much more with the public in order to promote a more democratic and fact-based society even if our academic career structures do not incentivize this seemingly tangential but necessary activity.

Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for…

…a student deciding upon her/his field

Choose whatever field and sub-field you are most interested in and follow the questions that you yourself are interested in. If having studied a field, you realize that all the questions you are interested in have already been answered, change your field. Keep changing until you arrive at your research focus – what do you really want to know that you can’t learn from a library? What in science do you think about while walking through a park or museum on a Sunday afternoon? Science is a continuing journey of investigation and discovery, not the learning of an established body of facts. Always stick to questions. Answers are usually boring, but they lead you to refine the original question and open new doors. All science is refining bad ideas. We are all stumbling around in the dark, trying to be a little bit less wrong with each step.

 …a doctoral candidate choosing a topic an research group

Your PhD lab should have three essential features. First it should be in the broad scientific area that interests you most at that point in your development. Second, it should be a competent and productive lab that will enable you to learn techniques and deliver significant and recognizable research outputs. Third, it should be a place where you can see yourself functioning, every day, in a happy and motivated state. Carefully investigate any research group you consider doing your PhD in. Avoid research groups where you can sense uncomfortable levels of anxiety, stress, or depressed attitudes. Above all, be open to learning as many new ideas, techniques, and perspectives as possible. By the end of your PhD you should have a clear idea of your long-term research direction, and it probably won’t be the topic of your PhD. Maintain an active personal and social life outside of your PhD – it makes life and science better.

 …a postdoctoral researcher

Chose a new research topic that both complements your PhD research and directly leads into your independent research career. Take charge and be bold – your postdoctoral career may be your best and/or last opportunity to do truly high risk science. At the same time be cautious, and avoid joining seemingly impressive research groups where very few people are successful. Develop a good relationship with your Postdoctoral mentor and always work collaboratively with them. Always look after your mental health.

 …an early faculty researcher

Find the right environment for you to work in and develop your research program. Do not necessarily go for the most prestigious or fancy institutions. You are one data point and you will not represent the average performance level of whatever university you end up at. Choose an institution that is the best individual fit for you and your group. Then the most important thing is to invest a LOT of time and effort into recruiting the best people to your group. For European institutions, getting significant funding in advance of accepting an offer of a position is a huge advantage. Negotiate hard for everything – whatever you ask for that you need is an order of magnitude more valuable to you than it is to the university.

What’s your approximate success/rejection rate for (papers/grants/job applications)?

I’ve never estimated it, but I have been fortunate.

We are all great in handling success, but what’s your mantra to handle rejections?

Rejection is just a part of the academic process. If you know you have something genuinely new or valuable to say, and you persist, then you will eventually succeed. Frequent rejections are an unavoidable reality of the over-crowded and hyper-competitive academic environment. If the system is working, then rejections are also precious opportunities to receive frank and invaluable feedback that we normally don’t receive from our closest friends and colleagues. However, I also worry that paper and grant rejections can often occur simply due to reviewer laziness or political agendas. Regardless of the cause of rejection, wrestling with the academic environment should be much less challenging that dealing with failed experiments and the difficulties of actual scientific investigation. I have been very lucky that this has so far been the case for my own situation. I don’t know what my attitude would be if that balance of effort shifted to the academic side.

Success is not always easy to handle either. One piece of advice from my Postdoctoral mentor still resonates with me: “Katte kabuto no o wo shimeyo”, translated as “After victory, tighten your helmet strap”.

Where do you think the future of your field lies? What are key challenges we have to overcome?

I don’t know where the future of my field lies, but I am sure that it will be formed by individuals who focus on making progress through curiosity-driven science rather than the machinations of big data and research policies aimed purely or primarily at methodological development or translational research. We know so little about the brain that we should not be constrained by any scientific dogma or particular philosophical approach. As long as we support young researchers to do what they’re interested in, we’ll make progress.

Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a fellow scientist (younger or older) or any person interested in science?

I tend to tell younger scientists that science is not a career. It is not something that one should chose  as a potential alternative to medicine or law or business or whatever. Science is an activity. It is an investigative and creative process that transcends the trappings of the academic career structure (position, salary, awards, and responsibilities). For the science to be done, and to survive as scientists, it is necessary that we engage in the processes and structures of academia. But it is important to keep in mind that all of the realities of academia – universities, funding organizations, journals, awards, etc – are just tools with which to get the actual science done. Focus on the question, and get to an answer.

Telling things to older scientists is usually a waste of time. Usually.


You can also find out more about Tomás Ryan at:

Twitter: @TJRyan_77

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