Interviews with Scientists: Nina Lichtenberg

Interviews with Scientists: Nina Lichtenberg
4 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Nina Lichtenberg

Next in our Interviews with Scientists series, meet Nina Lichtenberg! Nina earned her undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Maryland, College Park. Currently, she is working on wrapping up her PhD in the Psychology department at UCLA by studying the neural circuitry of memory retrieval and decision making.

Apart from her research, Nina spends her time developing a neuroscience outreach program that connects undergraduates with the local LA community and builds their scicomm skills. We spoke to Nina about her PhD, the challenges facing life scientists right now, the advice she would give to new PhD students, and more.

Hi Nina, thank you for chatting to us! Firstly, we’d love to hear a bit more about your PhD...

My PhD research focuses on uncovering the neural circuits of memory retrieval. Specifically, cue-reward memories. Environmental cues can powerfully influence our everyday behaviors and choices. For example, an advertisement (i.e. cue) can sway our decisions, such as whether or not to purchase the product being advertised. This cognitive process is often disrupted in psychiatric disorders (e.g. addiction) resulting in maladaptive behaviors. For example, a drug addict may be uncontrollably driven by drug cues to continue using their drug of choice despite negative life consequences.

In my experiments, I isolate neural circuits with precision thanks to both traditional and modern-day neuroscience techniques. First, I map out pathways of interest by using traditional neural tracing methods, such as anterograde (i.e. forward traveling) and retrograde (i.e. backward traveling) labeling, to fluorescently label neurons projecting to and from specific regions of the brain. Visible fluorescent markers help me anatomically identify pathways of interest. So, for example, I have mapped out amygdala neurons projecting to distinct regions of the frontal cortex.

Next, I manipulate these pathways (i.e. projections) to casually determine how they control cue-guided behavior. To do so, I use chemogenetics, commonly known as Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs (DREADDs), to drive the neural activity of projection neurons up or down during tests of cue-reward memory retrieval. More recently, I became curious about the temporal nature of signaling along these pathways. So, I also utilize in vivo neural recording techniques to monitor the activity of these projection neurons. By using these approaches, I hope to gain an in depth understanding of how the amygdala-cortical network controls behavior and decision-making.

Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?

No, actually as a kid I wanted to be a veterinarian. I loved animals and had lots of pets growing up. Animal cognition, especially across species, was fascinating to me. I guess biology and cognition were on my mind from a young age.

When I first began undergraduate studies, I was double majoring in biology and psychology, and from day one my goal was to apply to medical school after college. I thought about being a psychiatrist, neurosurgeon, or maybe treating patients with traumatic brain injuries. But, I enjoyed classes in abnormal psychology and cognitive science, and I think I was in search of something that married psychology and biological science. Then, when I took my first neuroscience course as a junior, I realized that there were people who actually spend all their time researching the neural basis of cognition. A lightbulb lit up in my head, and from then on I was hooked on basic neuroscience research. I volunteered in a few labs as an undergraduate and enjoyed working with teams of people who were full of energy and driven by curiosity, and who all wanted to accomplish a research goal together – these individuals inspired me to pursue basic science research.

What are you enjoying most about your PhD?

The people I meet from all walks of life. Whether on campus or at a conference, I’ve met individuals from all parts of the country and from around the world. I also like working with individuals at all different career levels: undergraduates, grad students, faculty, etc. I like talking about my research with familiar and unfamiliar faces, and enjoy listening to others’ experiments, perspectives, and opinions in the field.

I have also been very lucky to experience a bit of everything as a PhD student – a plethora of research techniques, data analysis, the review and publication process, teaching, and even public outreach. The variety keeps me busy – there’s never a boring day in (or out of) the lab.

What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?

Communicating science to other scientists and to the public. I’ve been told that life scientists tend to (unconsciously) assume that their audience is familiar with their experimental approaches and/or techniques. It’s easy to talk science to colleagues, but difficult to communicate your work to those who are not familiar with your research. It may be even more difficult, perhaps, for a basic scientist to explain experiments and results to the general public. I think that throughout their careers, life scientists would benefit from tailoring the dissemination of their findings to a variety of audiences. Perhaps in the form of public speaking, writing, or even artistic expression (i.e. graphics, or something like a lab website or blog).

Keeping up with technological advances, particularly in data acquisition and/or big data processing, is also a major challenge. These days labs rooted in biology, for example, are using powerful tools to gather lots and lots of data. I think that collaborations between life scientists, engineers, computational experts, and statisticians are hugely beneficial, and very much needed. In my field (neuroscience) I have noticed more and more of these experts collaborating on projects, which is excellent and totally necessary.

What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?

Work-life balance is extremely important, if not the most important aspect of the PhD. Be sure to establish this early on, within your first year or so in the program. Also, ask questions in classes and / or seminars, and don’t be afraid to talk to professors about your research, coursework, or anything. This is essentially networking.

Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...

Currently, I’m working on an experiment that involves using specialized genetically engineered receptors to drive up the activity of specific pathways within a specific cortical-subcortical circuit during cue-reward memory retrieval. I’m also recording neural signals from these pathways during memory retrieval.

What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

On a typical day, I make a to-do list for the day, get in to the lab early, have a cup of coffee, answer some emails, and then head down to the lab to run experiments. My afternoons are spent planning out experiments, writing, and working on data analysis. I also schedule meetings for the afternoons. There’s variety in my schedule – sometimes I spend the whole day in the lab, and other days it’s just the mornings.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

I spend a lot of time outside. During beach season (thank you LA), I’m at the beach almost every weekend. I like hiking too, local trails and sometimes those within an hour’s drive. Exploring the city has also become a hobby of mine. I try to go to a different neighborhood or restaurant every week or two. That being said, I like cooking and making new foods at home too.

If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?

I have lots and lots of interests. I love writing, public engagement, and keeping up with the news / politics, so probably a journalist or science journalist. I think I would also be happy in a clinical / medical setting, as a surgeon or neurosurgeon.

What is it about your field of research or current work that gets you most excited?

How rapidly technology is advancing and being applied to the field. I love that every few years, if I wanted to, I could use a new technique or approach to answer the same research questions I’ve had on my mind for a while. Neuroscience is truly a rapidly growing and evolving field of science. I also love to share my research findings and the new techniques I’m using with those around me – colleagues, friends, and family.

Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?

Broadly speaking, I admire those who have found a happy medium. To me, it seems like this is hard to do, especially in academia. Being a great scientist, boss, teacher, mentor, grant writer, on top of managing a healthy social and family life is a balancing act. I have a lot of respect for those who are able to attend to everything equally. I also admire scientists who have carved out their own niche, even if this may have required going against the grain or straying away from popular trends / techniques in neuroscience or science in general.

What’s your favourite science quote?

“Every brilliant experiment, like every great work of art, starts with an act of imagination.” – Jonah Lehrer

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

The synthesis of morphine, and the use of general anesthesia for surgery. Morphine was first synthesized by a German chemist in 1804 and became widely used as a painkiller during trauma and for chronic pain. Though highly addictive, thousands of patients to this day depend on morphine or its derivatives for pain relief. General anesthesia was certainly a game changer – modern medicine would not be possible without it.


Thank you so much for speaking to us Nina, and best of luck with your research!

Follow Nina on Twitter: @NTlichten

Read Nina’s brilliant guest blogs for us:

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