Graduate School Life

A look at work from the labs of
CUMC’s graduate program

The Doctoral Program in Neurobiology and Behavior
Profiles of Three Graduate Students

There’s more to the Neurobiology and Behavior Ph.D. program than meets the retina. Three intrepid first-years set out to discover the personalities that inhabit the research labs at Columbia … and got more than they bargained for. The senior graduate students profiled here reveal, in addition to a commitment to practicing science at the highest level, a set of varied personal histories, significant engagement in their communities, and pronounced intellectual interests outside of their chosen fields of study. The backgrounds, interests, and goals of these students reflect the burgeoning interdisciplinary state of neuroscience as well as the collaborative approach central to the program’s mission (see Interviews were conducted by Greg Wayne, Joe Schumacher, and Irene Ballagh and edited by Carl Schoonover. All are students who entered the Neurobiology Ph.D. program in 2007.

Kanaka Rajan
Kanaka Rajan
Kanaka Rajan
Kanaka Rajan was a fugitive before she became a neuroscientist. After completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees in chemical engineering and physics in India, she ran away from home to avoid marriage and got a programming internship, debugging neural network software for Bose. While at Bose, she “googled the hell out of neural networks,” concocting a crazy scheme to get a Ph.D. in neuroscience. This initially “blew [her] parents’ circuits” because it wasn’t the conventional doctor/engineer/MBA career path.
    She enrolled in the neuroscience program at Brandeis and admits to starting out with a cocky attitude. “I thought I knew 200 years of physics. I took that attitude into biology and was cut down to size within two weeks.” She soon was furiously working 18 hours a day while TA-ing physiology for Eve Marder (currently a visiting professor at Columbia). Kanaka would study before class, write down every word from Eve’s mouth, look each word up, talk to Eve, run her recitation section, and so on.
    In 2006, Kanaka moved with her adviser, Larry Abbott, to Columbia’s new Center for Theoretical Neuroscience. This center presents an exciting opportunity to develop models that integrate data at multiple levels — e.g., how the properties of cells and circuits can yield the patterns of brain activity that experimentalists observe — into a theoretical framework. In Kanaka’s view, the strength of theoretical neuroscience is its breadth. “The key for us really is to understand that though we work with experimentalists, what we do isn’t bound by a single experimental technique.”
    She also has more personal reasons for her chosen field of study. “In the span of a 30- to 40-year career, you can try three or four or five completely different directions. If you’re borderline ADD, this is paradise.”
    Her focus now is on the study of chaotic activity in neural networks. She recalls talking to Larry Abbott about how classical neural network models do not reflect the functioning of even simple neural systems. “When you’re sitting in darkness with your ears closed, there are swirls of activity in the brain.” To figure out why, they built a network with internally generated chaotic activity and showed that the variability in synaptic strengths, rather than their mean strength, accounts for the background activity; as it turns out, chaos actually helps. “It’s like tuning a TV. The TV receives all stations, but it amplifies only the signal frequency you’re interested in. We think that the noise in our brains amplifies the transmission of sensory information without losing sensitivity to subtle stimuli.”

Kelley Remole interacting 
with young students 
to raise brain awareness
Kelley Remole interacting with young
students to raise brain awareness

Kelley Remole
Kelley Remole’s interest in science dates back to her childhood in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area where she worked at a science museum during high school. After attending Columbia University as a neuroscience major, she spent a year teaching English in Madrid before entering the neurobiology doctoral program. She started out with a strong interest in brain imaging and language processing, but her focus changed after a rotation in Holly Moore’s laboratory. “I really liked the idea of applying basic science work to the study of psychiatric diseases,” she says.
    Using the methylating agent MAM that induces in rodents the neuropathology seen in schizophrenia, Kelley studies how early disruption of brain development may lead to a higher risk of schizophrenia in adolescence. This promising avenue of research earned her a Clinical and Translational Science Award and allowed her to continue her basic science work while expanding her training as a translational scientist through classes and a clinical lab practicum.
    Outside the lab, Kelley has built a strong reputation for her outreach efforts within the local community. She has been instrumental in planning and executing Brain Awareness Week activities at Columbia, an annual event co-sponsored by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the Society for Neuroscience. During Brain Awareness Week, neuroscientists from around the country organize community outreach events focused on the brain. Kelley’s efforts have focused on classrooms of young children in The School at Columbia University.
    “It’s part of a national push to get students interested in neuroscience at a young age. We try to tap into the curiosity they have about how their brains work.” Most recently Kelley has been involved in planning facilities for public outreach in Columbia’s Jerome L. Greene Science Center at the future Manhattanville campus. She and Clay Lacefield (another outreach enthusiast) have been drafted to the committee in charge of developing a space dedicated to neuroscience education and outreach.

Clay Lacefield
Clay Lacefield
Clay Lacefield
From a small farm in Alabama to the bustle of Washington Heights, Clay Lacefield has followed his interests as they evolved from entomology and physics to molecular biology and the study of neural circuits and behavior. At Columbia, he has chosen to focus on the relatively new and controversial field of adult neurogenesis (the production of new neurons from stem cells in the adult brain).
    Working in the laboratory of Rene Hen on the role of adult neurogenesis in the actions of antidepressants, Clay records neural activity from anesthetized mice in which adult neurogenesis was blocked to uncover how newborn neurons alter the dynamics of oscillatory activity in the hippocampus. Clay also employs genetic and molecular biology skills (which he picked up as a technician in Eric Kandel’s lab) to label and modify the newborn neurons in question.
    Working at the cutting edge of a field as novel as adult neurogenesis is not without its challenges: Clay had to develop new experimental techniques to pursue his research questions, a process that is demanding and at times frustrating. Nevertheless, “it’s really cool as a grad student to be able to generate your own ideas and have the flexibility to be able to explore them.”
    This resourcefulness and independence of mind also find expression when he is away from the bench. He and fellow graduate student Corey Washington initiated a series of online podcasts aimed at explaining neuroscience findings to the general public. Clay likes the way that scientific research and outreach feed back onto each other, driving his creativity. He has applied it to a variety of electronic sound art and digital media projects that reflect his interests in science and technology and his desire to participate in the community. Mostly, he just likes to fiddle around with new things and see what works: “Experimentation is a very fruitful and productive approach to life.”