A Day in the Life: Interview with Dr. Rosalyn Moran, Neuroscientist at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute
Last week, we did not have time to fly to Virginia unfortunately but thanks to the advancements of modern technology (namely Skype), we managed to interview Dr. Rosalyn Moran, a Neuroscientist and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Virginia Tech, where she is spearheading research on the human brain and how it is affected by its environment over time. We were delighted to get a peep into her career journey (which started in Electronic Engineering) and the wonderful work she is doing as she leads discoveries in the new field of Neuroscience into the future.
1. What time does your day start?
I hate rushing and so I wake before 6am to make sure I have plenty of time for early emails, some music and a blast of the news. It’s presidential primary season in the US at the moment so there’s plenty of entertainment on cable news.
2. That brings us to our second question… Are you a tea or coffee person?
Both – though a connoisseur of neither, instant coffee is my go-to.
3. Please tell us a bit about your job.
I’m a Neuroscientist and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering at Virginia Tech. I work at a research institute so that means my role is primarily research focused. I run a small lab of 4-5 students and postdoctoral researchers and our work is focused on understanding the computations performed by the human brain and how they morph as we age. It’s a broad remit with the overall goal of understanding how we build our brains over time to cope and manoeuvre in the world around us and how the environment shapes the connections between our nerve cells. In practice, this means we spend our days scanning brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). We rely on willing members of the public to participate in our studies where we’ll test the brain activity that supports various types of ‘high level’ cognition, things like memory encoding, learning and inference; how we construct abstract representations within our neural wetware. Running a research group means being part manager, part motivator, part teacher, part scholar – hopefully more of the latter.
4. What brought you to this area?
Mine was a circuitous though not uncommon route to Neuroscience. At University College Dublin I studied Electrical Engineering and imagined I would start my own technology company. That’s still a work in progress… I initially began research into speech pattern analysis and obtained a US patent with my colleagues at UCD for a remote diagnostic platform for vocal tract diseases. I considered leaving my PhD to pursue its commercialization but was lured back to science with a change into brain imaging analysis. As it often goes – a coffee with a colleague drew my attention to an interesting and what I saw as a wholly solvable problem. He was studying schizophrenia in rodent models and wondered how to connect his electrical signals that he measured from little electrodes in the brain to the neurochemicals (called neurotransmitters), that he knew were floating about in those same brains. From an engineer’s perspective, a simple generative model of how transmitters cause electrical pulses should be a straightforward way to link these signals. This question led me to the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London where I found a group applying similar approaches. They were using similar models to those I was developing to examine brain connectivity. I wrote to the director of the group and he graciously agreed to listen to my idea. What I didn’t realise at the time was that the group was the world’s leading brain imaging methods development team who wrote a very famous software package called SPM (Statistical Parametric Mapping). I subsequently went on a three-month visiting scholar program to the Centre and didn’t leave for almost seven years.
5.What does your typical workday schedule look like?
There are few typical days – though my favourites are those with just me, some data and MatlabTM. I am an editor at a scientific journal Neuroimage: Clinical and so I work on getting papers out to peer review in the mornings. Then it’s meetings with students and colleagues to go over research progress until lunch, where lunch usually comprises of a trip to the vending machine (diet soda and peanut butter crackers – killing me slowly). The afternoons are a mix of faculty meetings, where we may be developing new curricula for example and then back to my data. I work with lots of research teams around the world on modelling brain data and so Skype is a constant feature of my day. Often my ‘real work’ starts after 5pm when the lab gets a little quiet and I can focus on writing and progressing the science. As an academic, one must also travel to present at meetings and explain research findings to a community that is focused but dispersed. This is an invaluable part of the job where your work takes on a bigger perspective and hopefully influences how people think about their own.
6. What kind of projects are you currently working on on?
I’m usually working on a number of projects at any one time. Right now my postdoctoral researcher is finalizing results from a study of patients with Alzheimer’s disease where we are honing in on brain channel abnormalities and their specific role in disrupting cognition. This project aims to go ‘beyond plaques’ and identify how synapses turn toxic. I am also working with a group at the institute to test the role of serotonin in the brain. This chemical is known through its association with depression, where drugs which boost serotonin like ‘prozac’ are prescribed successfully to treat depressive symptoms. Interestingly, though 30 million Americans are prescribed these drugs, we are still in the dark about what role this brain chemical plays in the human brain. I am examining how this chemical functions –joining a large multidisciplinary team of physicists, surgeons and physiologists to test its role. We are also working on robotics and how a brain analogy and ‘deep learning’ can lead to adaptive robots that learn how to respond to their environment.
7. When is your most productive time of the day?
Weekends are my time for starting/trying to complete the big projects.
8. What do you consider the greatest achievement in your work to date?
Joining those SPMers at University College London as a co-author; that was big!
9. If there was any other job you could do, what would it be?
Working in restaurants when I was younger, there was a definite appeal to a hectic, raucous service and I love baking, so pastry chef maybe?
10. How does technology support your work?
Our aim is to invent the neurotechnologies of the future. Neuroscience is such a young field that new basic discoveries of how the brain works often come hand-in-hand with an innovative methodological or technical development. In fact, the latter was the centrepiece to President Obama’s Brain Initiative, which injected new funding into US academic research. Optogenetics (a way to manipulate brain circuits in animals using light) has recently burst through as a method to test circuit function in animals. My lab’s goal is to push forward approaches to better understand these brain circuits in humans.
11. What is the one app you could not live without?
Google maps is quite handy. Though I could probably live without it.
12. What’s the best thing about working at Virginia Tech?
Having colleagues who foster a visionary intellectual environment.
13. Where is the after office hang out?
That would be a dark, oak-panelled steak-house bar in Roanoke called Frankie Rowland’s: the kind of place that knows your drink and where conversations can take their time.
14. Who is your professional role model?
Too many to mention by name. I’ve been fortunate to work with true luminaries in the field.
15. How do you balance your personal and professional life?
16. What are the top 3 qualities you look for in an employee?
A questioning intellect, a (devious) sense of humour and a good pace.
For more information, please visit Rosalyn’s profile page at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute here.