Bridging Molecules and Mind
Huganir’s rise through the ranks illustrates that point. He discovered molecular changes that occur at synapses during learning and memory and has become an international authority in this field, authoring or co-authoring over 180 scientific papers. He is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at the School and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences last year. In February, he was named director of the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience, taking over for its namesake and legendary founding director.
Are you at all apprehensive about following in the footsteps of Sol Snyder?
Last night I read a quote by Thomas Jefferson, who said when he replaced Benjamin Franklin as ambassador to France, ‘You don’t replace Ben Franklin. You succeed him.’ I’m not going to be Sol. Nobody can be Sol. But Sol has been a great mentor for me and in many ways groomed me for this. So I’m ready.
What’s your first priority as chair?
I want to maintain the collegiality, the collaborations and interactions both within the department and with clinical departments like neurology and psychiatry. I’m also eager to do some recruiting. I think I’m a good judge of scientific rigor and excellence. I’d like to bring in some of the best new neuroscientists, people who will fit in with our interactive culture.
What kind of investigators will you be looking to hire?
We’re very strong at molecular and cellular neuroscience—how molecules work at a synapse, the crystal structure of receptors. We’re also strong on the sensory side. We have scientists studying monkeys, how they sense touch or process visual information. What we’re missing are people in the middle, basically making a bridge between molecules and mind, explaining higher brain function at a molecular level.
So you will be in search of scientists who work in those “bridge” areas?
Our philosophy is to hire the best people out there, so we’ll probably put out a pretty broad ad. What happens is that you then get 10 great applicants and interview them. Sometimes you find people so outstanding that even if they are outside the target area, you hire them anyway.
How does our Department of Neuroscience rank nationally?
I think we’re the best, of course. But most would agree that we are in the top three. Harvard and UCSF are comparable, but they are not as collaborative.
Do we ever lose recruits to those places?
Not faculty. The quality of the science here is so high that once you are at a faculty level, you take the job for that reason alone. But some students and postdocs choose Boston and San Francisco because of lifestyle issues.
Tell us about your own research.
We’re trying to understand what changes in the brain, structurally and chemically, when you learn something. We’ve studied receptors that send signals back and forth between neurons and found that they are modified, and they make specific circuits or connections in your brain that encode the memory. Now we want to look at how specific circuits control specific behaviors in mice.
Can you provide an example?
We can now implant multiple electrodes in animals that record many neurons at a time so we can actually see what’s happening in a mouse brain when the mouse is learning something, like how to navigate a maze. This research is also applicable to disease. Drug addiction, for example, is a learned behavior.
What’s the most important thing that you yourself have learned here?
By nature I’m a more conservative scientist, but after hanging around here, I’ve become a risk taker. Sol was always willing to try something new, something different, to propose something out of the ordinary. The risks of operating that way are high, but the payoffs are also big. That’s been a good model for me.