Faculty Interviews

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Dr. Srinivasan Talks Imaging

vivekDr. 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.

Talking Swallowing Disorders with Julie Barkmeier-Kraemer

Dr. Julie Barkmeier-Kraemer

Dr. Julie Barkmeier-Kraemer is the person to visit when you’ve had a bad day in lab. She dreams big, smiles big, and laughs frequently. And she is passionate about the training of graduate students. For Dr. Barkmeier-Kraemer, this means re-evaluating the purpose of neuroscience graduate training and pushing the envelope for what the graduate experience can be. A new recruit to Davis and an expert in voice and swallowing disorders, Dr. Barkmeier-Kraemer and I sat down in her lab space in the Med Neuroscience building in Davis to talk about science, science education, and how nothing ventured is nothing gained.

CK: So, how long have you been here in Davis?
JBK: I officially joined the neuroscience faculty in December of 2011…is that right?  Yeah.  But I joined the Department of Otolaryngology in July of 2011.

CK: And you are coming from…
JBK: University of Arizona.

CK: Okay, and how long were you there?
JBK: I was there for fourteen years.  And I was part of their neuroscience program.

CK: What led you to study voice and swallowing disorders?
JBK: My area of expertise initially was behavior disordered children and child development. Through my master’s clinical training program, I was placed at the VA hospital with a colleague who had expertise in swallowing and voice disorders, particularly in head and neck cancer patients, and I had a year long clinical placement over there that totally changed my life.

Later, while a research fellow at the University of Iowa, Dr. Barkmeier-Kraemer’s fellowship ended before she completed her research. The funding source of the project required that she be a registered student, so she enrolled in a few classes in the graduate program in order to buy time to finish the project.

The intention was just to take some classes…and so I enrolled in the [Speech Pathology and Audiology] PhD program at Iowa….At that time I thought I’d just take some classes so I could finish out a study with [Steve Gray, otolaryngologist] that was a clinical study, but I fell in love with my PhD program. I loved it. And a lowly speech pathologist learned all about neurophysiology, I became very good at scanning electron microscopy, and I bridged all of that to an anatomical study of the recurrent laryngeal nerve.

Barkmeier & Luschei, 2000

Barkmeier & Luschei, 2000

CK: What is your favorite part about your research?
JBK: Aside from everything?
CK: Aside from everything.
JBK: I love that the research I do actually applies to a patient population, and I can tell you exactly why it matters.  Even if it is as remote as what is the epineurium composition of the recurrent laryngeal nerve. I can tell you why that matters to the patient population that it applies to.  I love that, that my work actually is translational…[also] the work that I do is not only neuroscience. It’s physiology, it’s anatomy, it’s physics, it’s engineering. It’s a blend of sciences, and I love that.

CK: And this kind of follows up on that. What do you think defines you as a scientist?
JBK: I never think of myself as being set apart, other than my sense of humor. Um, what sets me apart? Well…I don’t see anybody else [in the UCD neuroscience program] doing anything on aerodigestive research.  There is so much unknown across the lifespan about the upper airway and its interface with the digestive tract…Why did we uniquely split off the airway and the digestive tract from each other but yet have them join together? Now they have to coordinate, and that’s all done centrally…We know [virtually] nothing about the cortical controls, which [must be ] massive…I bring that unique interest to a community that I think has all of the resources to grow a unique, one-of-a-kind program…to bring the next generation of PhD researchers out into the world with an aerodigestive neuroscience background.

CK: What is the best scientific decision you’ve made thus far in your career, and also, if you’re willing to share, the worst decision?
JBK: The best scientific decision I ever made was to follow my passion of trying to understand the nervous system in the larynx. At the time I did that, it didn’t look like it was an area that would be highly fundable, marketable, or lucrative. And, as it turns out, it is currently one of the areas of research the NIH has picked as a highest priority…the work I’m doing impacts eating, breathing, and communication…across the lifespan.

Um, worst decisions…One of the very worst decisions I ever made was to trust somebody at the University of Arizona who ended up to be [disreputable]…And this cost me three years on my grant. It was a very bad collaborator, all the red flags were there, and I persisted in continuing to work with this person mainly because I didn’t have an alternative. But, that person was the worst decision I ever made in my life.

CK: What advice do you have for current students trying to navigate graduate school and career decisions?
JBK: A lot of advice…You’re probably looking at two or three postdocs before you land a position, and it’s highly competitive. So…what do you want to be thinking of?  Well, you want to be thinking, Is that kind of nomadic life okay for you? Ask yourself that. Ask yourself if your mentor is preparing you to be an autonomous, independent scientist who can do something and think about questions that are beyond their work and lab…Think about the environment you want to work in…And one more very important piece to think about: Is there an opportunity for you to get a predoc award to support your work and get your first grant while you’re still a student? One big piece to secure an academic job is to show you have a track record of funding and fundable research, and that starts when you’re a doc student…Funding is really critical…Publications in high impact journals… Those are things that are becoming critical pieces for being retained as a faculty member down the road. And setting that up during your PhD is really good.

Your postdoc, conceptually, is where you have the opportunity to spend time really becoming independent in your science, getting additional funding on your own to support your science…new perspective, new tools, new skills to really round out your scientific training…And if you can land an academic job with a grant in hand? That’s really critical nowadays for pretenure success and making it through the tenure process…Oh, and training students is another piece of that…I would absolutely encourage incorporation into our training program teaching preceptorships for those who want to go into an environment where they have to teach.

CK: Expanding upon that, do you have any concerns about the current state of academia?
JBK: Several! Academia is going away from a learning institution to a glorified business model of training and education. The standards by which we measure learning are becoming standardized in a way that I would argue people aren’t being measured on what they have learned…Education was never meant to be a business…If we could innovatively think more prospectively about what we’d like to see happen and how to fund that as an educational system, well, I’d be all for that.

CK: Are you more optimistic or more cynical about these problems?
JBK: I am your eternally optimistic person.

CK: What is your favorite way to take a load off and forget about your research?
JBK: My kids. My favorite way would be family time…I can always count on my kids to remind me what matters.
CK: And how many kids do you have?
JBK: I have two, and they are seven and nine years of age, and I have a boy and a girl.

CK: Is there a question you wish I had asked to help students to get you know you better?  Anything I didn’t cover?
JBK: A question I would like to be asked is what opportunities in my lab would I have to offer students.
CK: Okay! And what is your answer to that question?
JBK: I could offer to students an opportunity to develop a question they’re curious about pursuing and to have the opportunity to have a mini, microcosm research experience with a publishable paper at the end of it in a quarter’s time…for any level of research opportunity that has a clinical application and is relevant to neuroscience.

CK: Are you accepting new students and postdocs?
JBK: Yes, I am accepting new students.

She also has a position (already funded) for a computational modeling collaboration between Arizona and WashU in St. Louis for a postdoc or upper level graduate student as well as an unfunded project addressing how chemotherapy affects taste and smell perception that should begin data collection by this summer.