GILBERTO ROJAS VITE
Gilberto is a Ph.D. student in the IPN. He is in Dr. Adrien Peyrache's lab, where he is studying the origin of attractor dynamics in the navigation system using electrophysiology and optogenetics in freely moving animals.
Welcome to #IamIPN, Gilberto! What motivated you to join the IPN at McGill University and pursue your Doctoral studies in neuroscience?
The truth is that I have wanted to study at McGill since I started my bachelors degree. It is one of the best universities in the world and a lot of great scientists and thinkers have started their careers here. When I was considering options for my doctoral studies, I realised that the IPN program was the largest neuroscience program in North America, bringing access to high quality research and education. The final weight that tilted my decision to join the program was discovering the interesting research carried out by the Peyrache Lab, since it specifically matched my interests.
My goal is to do research in neuroscience by becoming a principal investigator. To do so, pursuing my doctoral studies is a necessary step that will contribute to my academic training. Particularly, studying Neuroscience has allowed me to do research in what I think is one of the biggest mysteries of the universe: the human mind. In order to know more about this, we need to find out about how the brain works.
I believe it is a great moment to study Neuroscience. Society is aware of the importance of studying the brain and there is an important background of rigorous knowledge supporting the research. A lot of open questions still remain, but currently we have technology that allows us to tackle several of them.
Interesting! Briefly describe your graduate research project to our readers.
I am interested in the brain circuits that allow us to make sense of the world that is “outside”. My favourite cell types are the head direction cells. Each of these cells fire for one preferred direction of the head in the horizontal plane. Together, they form the brain’s compass. Now, imagine we take one cell that is active every time the head of the animal points to the north and another one when the head points to the south. Every time one cell is active, the other is silent. Why is it like that? Does this depend on the sensory inputs only? Or can it be explained because the North cell inhibits the South cell? Studying sleep is one of our strategies to answer this question since the sleepy brain is mostly deprived from sensory inputs. As it turns out, the north cell and the south cell maintain their rivalry during sleep, when one is active, the other one is silent. Quite surprisingly, the brain’s compass points towards random and ever-changing directions during sleep. Why is that? The lab is trying to understand. At any rate, this highly organized activity shows that the brain’s compass is wired in such a way that the sense of direction (and certainly all other senses) does not need inputs from the sensory organs to exist. The network phenomenon consisting of having only one subgroup of neuron active at any time (the “needle” for the brain’s compass) is known as “attractor dynamics”. Even if the inputs are totally noisy, the network will be attracted to a stable state. Using electrophysiology and optogenetic in freely moving animals, I am interested in studying the origin of attractor dynamics in the navigation system.
When and how did your interest in electrophysiology come about?
During my bachelor’s, I took a class in which professor Sunil Gandhi (University of California, Irvine) projected a video of the classic experiment of Hubbel and Wiesel about vision. They were recording the electrical activity of neurons in the visual cortex during the presentation of a visual stimuli. Every time the neuron was active, you listened a sound. It was incredible for me to know that we had a tool that allows us to access the brain’s internal code. Later, I had great professors during my masters at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who were conducting research on neural circuits. I became fascinated with this approach, so I decided to continue my graduate studies using that technique.
How would your research and findings translate to societal welfare?
People with Alzheimer's, dementia and other brain disorders, have memory impairments, but also navigation impairments. This is not fortuitous since structures such as the thalamus, the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex are crucial for both memory and navigation. Understanding the dynamics of the navigation system serves as a foundation for future investigation linking neuronal dynamics, behavior and cognitive deficits.
How has the current pandemic affected your research and studies, if at all?
At the beginning it was complicated for everyone to do experimental work. I had some important experiments running, and then I had to suddenly stop everything. My main strategy has been to improve my coding skills and dig into my data. During the “big” lock down I focused on analyzing my data, I took a python class during summer and I attended a computational neuroscience summer school.
Now things are going better regarding the experimental work, we have a very good strategy in the lab, so we can run the experiments we need.
There are things that are still complicated. I really miss the ‘in person’ seminars and our lab meetings at the MNI.
Aside from courses and research, what activities do you enjoy doing in your leisure time?
Before going to bed, I need a relaxation cocktail: music and books. I play the guitar for a bit (we could say that I play my own lullaby j/k), and I dedicate some minutes to read something non related to neuroscience.
Whenever I can (and it is allowed), I do climbing. I like that it's not all about strength, you also need the right technique. Every movement requires the right position and quick thinking to make a good decision.
During weekends, I spend some time on a project I have with my brother, who is a biomedical scientist. We are building an EEG with some distinctive features. At the beginning the objective was to learn by doing, but now another friend who is a mathematician expert in machine learning got interested and it seems that the idea will grow by considering some applications. I also work on a science diffusion project I have with some friends, a series of podcasts where we interview grad students in different areas of science and technology so they can share their research. These projects are in an early stage, but I am very excited about them.
Feel free to share tips and resources on how you continue to take care of your physical and mental well-being during these times.
Exercising is a key component of physical and mental well being for me. During what I have called the big lockdown, climbing was not an option. I do climbing because I like it, but we also need just physical activity. I haven’t ever been a great fan of running, but during the big lockdown it was something that at least allowed me to have the benefits of exercising, although during Winter this can become complicated. I know that working out at home is a good option for some friends, especially because during the lockdown a lot of people created good material for this purpose (e.g. YouTube). However, with the precaution necessary I plan to do some outdoors activities and embrace the Winter.
Since we all have experienced the difficulties of confinement, we know more than ever that social interaction is crucial for our well being. Video calls have been a good palliative for this in my case and they have made me better appreciate the company of my beloved ones even in the distance.
What is one resource (tool, software, website, app) that you recently discovered, and would like to share with our readers?
Brainrender, a great python library that allows visualization of neuroanatomical data. You can incorporate data from data sets as the Allen atlases. For example, I used it in my candidacy presentation for showing some projections from the thalamus to the entorhinal cortex.
Awesome! Best of luck in all your endeavours, Gilberto!
Published on December 2, 2020