Congrats Jonny !!! Well deserved!!
Kaiserin Friedrich Gymansium (until 2000); Goethe University Frankfurt (2000-2004); Oxford University (2004-2005); Max Planck Institute for Brain Research Frankfurt (2005-2009)
B.Sc. Psychology; M.Sc. Neuroscience; Ph.D. Neurophysiology
University College London; Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour
Favourite thing to do in my job Analyzing the first data from a new experiment. There are almost always some unexpected results, so you have to keep an eye out for interesting patterns that crop up. And you have to be ready to be wrong – the wronger your initial ideas were, the more interesting the results.
I teach mice to play computer games while I am messing with their brain.
The main question of my work is how neurons manage to ‘talk to each other’ and communicate information – especially visual information. For example, imagine you are looking at a crowd, trying to spot the face of your friend. While you are doing that, lots of neurons in your visual cortex get activated, responding to bright and dark ‘pixels’ that they then glue together into different people’s faces, and other neurons are active signalling which faces are important to you and which ones you can ignore. So all these neurons are active together, and activate each other in different patterns, but we don’t know yet where in those activity patterns information is transmitted. It’s like hearing people talk without having any idea how human language works – clearly everyone is using their voice to make some kind of sounds, but what on earth are those sounds supposed to be doing?
People have been trying to solve this question for years by recording the activity patterns of neurons while a person (or an animal) is looking at things or solving a visual task. But there are so many interesting and possibly important neuron patterns – so to find out if an activity pattern really matters, we need to not only record it, we also have to change it and find out if the person or animal now sees things differently as a result. That’s what we do with our mice.
First we teach the mice to run towards ‘good’ visual targets in a computer game (usually stripey walls) instead of ‘bad’ visual targets (also stripey walls, where the stripes are at slightly different angles). Since the difference between good and bad targets is so small, the brain activity has to be pretty precise to be able tell the difference. We then record the activity of lots of neurons with electrodes that we stick into the brain, and for each moment we try to find the activity pattern that best predicts if the mouse is going to make the right or the wrong decision. The final bit is really cool and really new: a few years ago someone came up with a way of making neurons react to blue light. So whenever you shine blue light onto the brain those neurons become active. And with yellow light you can make them fall silent. This means that we can change the activity patterns of the neurons superprecisely – it’s almost like playing a ‘brain piano’. Depending on how and when we change the activity patterns, the mice get better or worse at the computer game, and that tells us which neuron activity patterns are most important in order to see the good and bad targets.
My Typical Day
Teach mice, record neurons, analyze data, talk to people, have lots of coffee.
My days can be really different depending on what’s the most important aspect of work at the time. I usually get up pretty late because my brain doesn’t like early mornings. There are days when I do mostly experimental work – wiring electronics for new measurements, training mice on different tasks, doing surgeries to record neuronal activity from their visual cortex. On other days I sit somewhere (usually in a cafe close to campus) and write programs to analyze data and visualize them in different ways. We look at many different details of behaviour (e.g. how much the animals run in which direction, how often and how quickly they lick to get a soy milk reward, where they are looking…). All these details give us a clue of what the animal ‘might be thinking’, so it’s important to try lots of different analyses. On other days I mostly write up new results or plans for new experiments. I always work together with students, so I’ll interact with my students and try to teach them useful stuff throughout the day (though a lot of the time they end up teaching me instead 🙂 ). On most days there are one or two meetings to keep colleagues updated on each other’s work and/or on practical organization stuff.
What I'd do with the money
I’d like to donate the money to promote better math classes/online math tutorials
I believe that maths is one of the essential life skills you can learn in school. Not because you need to compute your taxes later on or anything like that, but because maths is the only language in which no one can tell you you’re wrong when you’re right. Not through authority, persuasion, ‘public opinion’, or anything else. So maths is a truly democratic way of thinking, and it’s a great way to get to know your brain.
At the same time, maths is one of the least-liked subjects for a lot of students. And I think that’s mostly down to the way it is taught. I’d spend the prize money supporting groups that are trying to find better ways of getting students interested in – and confident about – maths.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Happily (mildly) crazy
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Teaching mice things no one has ever taught them before. They are much smarter than we think!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My first internship at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. I was asking how to solve a problem and my supervisor said ‘I don’t know. No one has ever tried this before.’ I found it really exciting to basically have to find your way through a jungle, to be in totally uncharted territory.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No. I liked school. :)
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
Either a teacher or a dancer (probably a teacher)
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Right now – Florence and the Machine, Jamie XX
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
The most fun for me – going to Bestival a couple of years ago. The most fun for others – very bad karaoke performances around the globe.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1) Secretly having a few extra hours per day so I can spend all the time I want on science, friends, family and hobbies 2) for science to become less dependent on money – if researchers spend too much time worrying about money they forget to work together towards gaining truly new insights 3) to magically become good at some form of movement that takes years to practice (parkour, martial arts, break dance, that kind of thing)
Tell us a joke.
Eeeeh… well, I’m half-German. People always say Germans have no sense of humour. I don’t find that funny. :P
Mouse having its well-deserved peanut reward. The little metal plate on its head is glued to the skull and doesn’t hurt. The plate is used as a ‘grip’ so that the mouse can stay exactly in place while it is running through the virtual computer game world on a treadmill.
Self-built (and pleasingly flower-shaped) cage to protect the electrodes we use to record neuron activity.
Acrobatic mice during play time