Dr. Steve Ramirez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University. He attended Boston University for his undergraduate studies in neuroscience, was awarded his PhD in Brain and Cognitive Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, served as a Visiting Lecturer of Neuroscience at Tufts University while a graduate student, and spent two years at the Center for Brain Science at Harvard University as a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows before returning to Boston University as a faculty member. Steve has received many awards and honors thus far in his career, including an NIH Early Independence Award, a NARSAD Young Investigator Award, the Gordon Research Conference Travel Award, the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology Travel Award, Smithsonian Magazine’s American Ingenuity Award in the Natural Sciences, the Walle Nauta Award for Continuing Dedication to Teaching at MIT, and the Angus MacDonald Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at MIT. Steve has also been named among Forbes Magazine’s 30 Innovators Under the Age of 30 in the area of Science and Technology, a National Geographic Breakthrough Explorer, one of Science News’s Top 10 Bright Young Minds, Pacific Standard Magazine’s Top 30 Thinkers Under the Age of 30, and the MIT Technology Review World’s Top 35 Innovators Under the Age of 35 Award. He has also given two TED talks. Steve has joined us today to talk about his experiences in life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (3:02)
Steve was born and raised in the Boston area, so accepting a faculty position at Boston University meant reuniting with his family, friends, and beloved New England Patriots. He spends his down time watching Netflix with friends and hanging out with his family. Steve appreciates all that his parents have endured and the positive influence they have had on his life, and he has brunch with them every Sunday and chats with them twice each day on the phone.
The Scientific Side (5:31)
In his research, Steve is studying learning and memory, and he is interested in discovering whether it is possible to artificially turn memories on and off. His research focuses on understanding the brain and what we can do when processes in the brain break down. They are working on turning on positive or negative memories in animal models to gain a better understanding of how the brain and memory work. In addition, they use animal models of conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD to study whether artificially manipulating memories may alleviate some of the symptoms of these conditions.
A Dose of Motivation (8:08)
-“Become the change you want to see in the world.” – Mahatma Ghandi
-“Just put your head down, ignore the noise, trust your team, and throw the ball, and that’s how you end up winning championships.”
– “Start the dance, and everyone else around you is going to start dancing.”
– “I believe in hard work and good luck, and that a lot of the former leads to a lot of the latter.” – J.K. Rowling
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:50)
Throughout his school years, Steve wasn’t an exceptional student, but he had a wide variety of interests. He enjoyed literature, music, philosophy, religion, science, physics, and astronomy. It was difficult for him to chose a major in college and a direction for his career. Sophomore year, Steve volunteered to work in a research lab because he wanted to see what it was like to do science. One fateful day, a piece of machinery broke in the lab, and Steve had to visit another lab to use the equipment there. When he arrived with sample in hand, Steve was stunned to see the girl he had a crush on at the time. They chatted about their interests and career plans, and she recommended that Steve talk to a faculty member who later became the Director of Undergraduate Neuroscience at Boston University. This Professor encouraged Steve to pursue neuroscience since, after all, the brain is the most interdisciplinary organ. By studying the brain, Steve could indirectly better understand many of the things in which he was interested.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (30:36)
For one of his past experiments, Steve had to train their model organisms to go to a lick spout that delivered sugar water. Normally, animals really like sugar water, and this is a pretty basic behavioral task. No matter what Steve tried, the animals wouldn’t do the task. It was insanely frustrating because every day he would put the animals in and try all sorts of different things to get them to go to the sugar water spout. Nothing worked. Weeks turned into months. Around nine months into the project, Steve finally consulted colleagues for help. The very next day, he was able to get it to work. A very different challenge that Steve has experienced as a faculty member is related people’s perception of his lab group. Steve has a very paternal view of his role in the lab, and he was really excited and proud to go to the annual Society for Neuroscience conference with his lab for the first time. This is a huge conference with over 35,000 attendees each year. He felt like he had really made it as he hosted their lab dinner, attended socials with the group, played foosball with his lab members, and enjoyed the events of the conference. One of his friends alerted him to an inappropriate off-the-cuff comment that a colleague had made about Steve and his lab. Steve was offended by the comment and what it insinuated. Rather than add fuel to the gossip fire, Steve encouraged his group to ignore the noise, do the best science they could, and let the quality of their work speak for itself.
A Shining Success! (39:25)
In his first year of graduate school, Steve worked on a project with a close friend and colleague named Xu. Xu had developed all of the tools they needed, and they were working on applying the tools to turn on a memory in a rodent. The goal was to re-activate brain cells in a particular region of a part of the brain called the hippocampus that is involved in memory. They thought that if these cells were re-activated, they could initiate a chain reaction to recall a memory. In four out of the five animals that underwent surgery, it didn’t work. When they looked closer at the one animal where memory activation appeared to work, they discovered that they had made a mistake during surgery and accidentally targeted a group of cells in a different region of the hippocampus. When they aimed for this new area of the hippocampus in the next group, nearly all of the animals showed evidence of artificially recalling a memory when the targeted cells were stimulated. They had been looking for the right thing in the wrong place, and they accidentally found it. This mistake in their experiment launched Steve’s career.
Book Recommendations (43:01)
Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined by Steven Pinker
Most Treasured Travel (45:53)
Many of Steve’s papers and grants were written at a ski lodge in Maine or in Cape Cod. The writing has been hard work, but changing the scenery and stepping outside of the lab really helps him write. For example, the grant for the Early Independence Award Steve received from the National Institutes of Health was mostly written in Cape Cod. In terms of more exotic destinations, Steve traveled to Grenada in the Caribbean this past February to attend a conference on learning and memory. The beaches were beautiful, and escaping the Boston winter to soak up the sun was magnificent, but Steve’s most memorable experience of the trip involved watching the Super Bowl in a bar with a stranger. The New England Patriots played an intense game with an astounding come-from-behind victory, and Steve and his recent acquaintance (who also happened to be a big Patriots fan from Massachusetts) shared the whole emotional roller coaster ride together. In the end, the two of them were jumping up and down in the bar in celebration. On the way back from the bar, Steve unexpectedly witnessed the grandeur of Mars and Venus vividly illuminating the night sky.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (50:15)
Going out to happy hour together has become a tradition in Steve’s lab. When they’re out together, the group talks about lab projects as well as their interests and lives outside of science. They also have a pretty serious foosball competition in the lab. Steve is generally not a competitive person, except for when he’s playing foosball or ping pong. At a recent conference, he played a heated game of ping pong with the Director of the National Institutes of Mental Health. The game began innocently enough as they chatted and got caught up, but by the end, they were both attacking the ball with fierce determination to win.
Advice For Us All (1:00:59)
Find something more important than you are, and dedicate yourself to it. If there is something you might be interested in doing, get your hands dirty and try it firsthand. Also, ask other people for advice, and remember that it’s okay if mistakes happen because they could lead you somewhere great. It can be difficult to have conversations with people who disagree with you on a topic, but it is important to have these conversations and make them constructive dialogues. When you do, you should never dismiss or alienate the person. If your goal is to change someone’s mind, you need to meet them halfway, and then rope them in, little by little, ideally without them even realizing it.
Steve began researching learning and memory as an undergraduate at Boston University, and he went on to complete his PhD at MIT working on projects involving artificially modulating memories in the rodent brain. Current work in Steve’s lab focuses on understanding the neural circuit mechanisms of memory storage and retrieval, and leveraging memory manipulations to alleviate symptoms associated with psychiatric diseases, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). To answer understand how memory works and can be modified, they use a wide variety of multi-disciplinary approaches, including virus engineering strategies, immunohistochemistry, physiology, optogenetics, functional imaging of targeted populations in vivo, and behavioral assays. When he’s not in the lab, Steve is enjoying a round and cheering on all sports teams in Boston.