Brains for Brains Award 2014: On a journey through German labs

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Hinter den Kulissen eines Forschungsnetzwerks
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As part of the Bernstein Network’s Young Computational Neuroscientist Award, I was given the opportunity to visit two German labs. I’ll be honest – and I’m not just writing this to be nice to my hosts – it was very hard to choose only two labs! There is so much great computational and experimental work being done in Germany. In the end, I stuck close to home in terms of my research background (statistical methods and population imaging) and chose to visit the labs of Matthias Bethge and Jason Kerr.
I chose those labs because I really admire how they position themselves at the intersection of computational and experimental neuroscience. In as much as I am a computational neuroscientist (in training), I am because I want to build tools to help us understand our data and subsequently how nervous systems process information.
Professor Bethge’s group – through its collaborations with the Tolias Lab and (as I found out during my visit) the Euler Lab – shows what can be accomplished when computational and experimental collaborations really dig deep on a problem instead of coming together briefly and then going off their separate ways. When I arrived in Tübingen, Professor Bethge and I went out to dinner at a restaurant on the Neckar River, and he was more than happy to let me pick his brain about how these collaborations develop over some Swabian food and wheat beer.

The next day I went to the lab to meet his students and postdocs who were extremely welcoming and became my friends throughout the conference (which was nice since I was otherwise on my own for over a week). It was particularly interesting – as a young scientist – to hear one of the postdocs talk about the way one of their algorithms has evolved over the course of a project. Also, here’s a pro-tip: if you find yourself in need of reading material in Tübingen, the Bethge lab has an amazing collection of math and neuroscience books.

After the conference, I headed to Bonn to the Center for Advanced European Studies and Research (CAESAR) to visit Jason Kerr’s lab. I chose this lab because I had known that Professor Kerr brings together experimentalists, mathematicians, and engineers under one roof to pull off some heroic experiments. I have to say, I really appreciated Professor Kerr’s candid conversation about the state of neuroscience – specifically the major challenges we face given that our tools – despite recent advances – still only reveal a glimmer of what’s going on in the brain. It was refreshing to have that kind of conversation with someone as experienced as Professor Kerr. Also, another pro-tip: Professor Kerr takes his espresso *very* seriously, which I respect. If you want a really good espresso in Bonn, visit his lab.

All in all, my trip to Germany was a blast. Being in Göttingen was a reminder of Germany’s place in the history of mathematics, and seeing all of the neuroscience going on there now bodes well for its place in our journey to understand the brain. Oh, one last note on the trip’s impact on me: I’m still eating salami sandwiches on pretzel buns for lunch.

Porträt Ben Shababo
Ben Shababo, doctoral student at UC Berkeley

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