Dr. Vivek Srinivasan is one of the newest members of the Neuroscience Graduate Group and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He jumped in with both feet when he spoke at the 2012 fall Neuroscience retreat after only being in Davis for only a few months. His office hasn’t had the time to collect the clutter of papers and artifacts often seen in the old timers’ offices, but he already has a journal cover to his name that sits on a shelf above his desk and a computer/printer setup fit for the engineer that he is. We caught up in his office with a view on the second floor of the Genome and Biomedical Sciences Facility (GBSF) building on campus.
CK: What was your most recent position (prior to coming to Davis)?
VS: Most recently I was in Boston, Massachusetts, at Mass General Hospital, specifically the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging as a postdoc and then junior faculty [instructor].
CK: What brought you to study optical imaging and also the hemodynamic response?
VS: Oh, well, it’s been a long road. So, I would say I started out very much as an engineer. My training was actually in electrical engineering. I was drawn to medical imaging because I felt it would combine my love of engineering and building things with some real and relevant applications both in clinical medicine and biology. My PhD work was mainly in the area of optical imaging of the retina, and we developed techniques that can visualize structures down to a few microns in the living human eye. During my postdoc and faculty time at Mass General, I became interested neuroimaging. In particular, the center I worked at was one of the early developers of functional MRI…it’s interesting how little we know about the fundamental underpinnings of it in spite of all of the papers being written about it and all of the publicity it has gotten. So, one of my areas of research is to better understand the origins of functional MRI…As MRI technology has gotten better…people have noticed new features in the response. The question is do those new features give us any new information about the underlying normal activity? Do they allow us to better interpret, let’s say, feedforward and feedback processing, or excitatory and inhibitory processing…It turns out it’s quite complicated.
Dr. Srinivasan adds that, “From more basic experimental studies, we can ask specific mechanistic questions about how the brain regulates blood flow at the microscopic level and what we can actually infer from changes or correlations in blood flow that are measured macroscopically with fMRI or other techniques.”
CK: What’s your favorite part about your research?
VS: I would say my favorite part about my research is taking a measurement in the lab and having it agree with the theory. That’s always great.
CK: Yeah, it makes it easy.
VS: Getting data that is clean and interpretable. Because we do a lot of in vivo imaging studies where there’s all kinds of variables that could go wrong: the physiology, anesthesia, or the imaging instrument itself.
CK: What do you think defines you as a scientist? So, what sets you apart from other people?
VS: I think what really sets me apart is that I’m developing techniques and technologies to answer basic questions, but also that I’m flexible in that once you have a great tool, I like to apply it to different areas…there are many retinal diseases where some of our ideas could be used as new diagnostics.
We then spent awhile looking at an image of rat brain vasculature captured with an optical imaging technique pioneered by Dr. Srinivasan (from this paper). As Dr. Srinivasan pointed out, the image demonstrates how incredibly complex brain vasculature is and why it is so difficult to tease apart the meaning of an fMRI signal, even for this engineer-turned-neuroscientist who has spent much of his career thinking about this exact problem.
CK: What is the best scientific decision you’ve made thus far in your career?
VS: Um, well, maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but I think I made a pretty good decision coming to UC Davis from Boston…I think this is a great neuroscience program, there’s nobody doing what I’m doing, and I really see the sky as being the limit in terms of the collaborations and opportunities that I could have here. So, right now I’m optimistic that I’ll call this a very good decision very soon.
CK: What advice do you have for current graduate students trying to navigate graduate school?
VS: For students navigating graduate school, I think it’s less important exactly what you work on. I think what’s more important is choosing an area that has potential for growth. So really look at the scientific field you’re in and [ask] is it a growing or shrinking field? Where is it going to be in five to ten years? And it’s a tough question for a student to answer…so it’s good to get advice from senior people. And I think it’s also good to choose your advisor carefully, not just based on personal characteristics, although those are important, but also based on track record of mentoring.
CK: Do you have any concerns about the current state of academia?
VS: I’m at the start of my career, I hope, so I tend to be more optimistic. I mean, the funding pay lines are very low, and they are getting lower, so it means that very good science isn’t getting funded, so that’s a concern.
CK: What is your favorite way to take a load off and forget about your research?
VS: (laughs) I never forget about my research! I mean, that’s the stuff that, really, I like thinking about in my free time. I play the piano, that’s one way I take a load off. Uh, go for a run, spend time with my wife, travel, go out to dinner, all those things.
CK: What is something people don’t necessarily learn about you until they spend a lot of time around you?
VS: I don’t know if I’m the right person to answer that question. Umm, I think people see I have a sense of humor, and I think that doesn’t always come across initially.
CK: Is there a question you wish I had asked to help students get to know you better that I didn’t ask?
VS: Yeah, kind of. What is unique about the type of work that I’m doing that may be attractive to potential students? And I think it’s really that we’re both in the business of developing new techniques and tools but also applying them to interesting questions. And I think there are very few other labs that can maintain excellence and emphasis in both areas, and this is what I hope to do.
CK: And do you have any current students or postdocs?
VS: Yeah, I have one postdoc who we just hired, another who’s coming, a student who’s starting in [spring] term in Biomedical Engineering. And then I have an assistant specialist who’s really going to help out a lot in running the lab operations.
CK: And are you still accepting students or postdocs?
VS: Yes. I’m very eager to recruit students from Neuroscience. Absolutely. And I would be interested in interviewing postdocs, too.