From Harvard to Tübingen

More and more U.S. researchers continue their careers at the Max Planck Campus Tübingen

November 19, 2019

The Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics won two internationally renowned scientists in the field of neuroscience. Jennifer Li and Drew Robson from the Rowland Institute at Harvard will be heading a new research group in the field of “Systems Neuroscience & Neuroengineering”, inducing a brain drain of excellent young researchers joining the institute from the U.S.

Li and Robson focus on the development of novel imaging systems to record and manipulate neural activity throughout the brain zebrafish. For over ten years, they have been developing increasingly sophisticated tools to record the activity of large neural networks, such as the entire brain of the larval zebrafish, during complex behaviours. Using these tools, they are obtaining increasingly detailed and comprehensive data. By investigating the internal brain dynamics that govern motivation and attention during complex behaviours, they want to gain a deeper understanding of how internal brain states dynamically modulate learning and decision-making.

Their expertise creates superb synergies between the MPI for Biological Cybernetics and its neighbouring institutes, the MPI for Developmental Biology and Intelligent Systems.

Jennifer Li received her B.A. in Molecular Biology from Princeton University, where she worked on developmental biology in the lab of Eric Wieschaus. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University, where she worked on systems neuroscience and operant learning in the labs of Alex Schier and Florian Engert. Before coming to Tübingen, Li was a Junior Fellow at the Rowland Institute at Harvard from 2014-2019.

Drew Robson received his B.A. in Mathematics from Princeton University, where he also worked on computational biology and biophysics in the labs of Olga Troyanskaya and Eric Wieschaus. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He focused on systems neuroscience and thermosensory behaviours in the labs of Alex Schier and Florian Engert. Before coming to Tübingen, he was a Junior Fellow at the Rowland Institute at Harvard from 2014-2019.

Why did you decide to come to Tübingen?

Jennifer: I met Zhaoping Li, Head of Sensory and Sensorimotor Systems at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics, at the Zebrafish Neural Circuits in December 2018. She described the goal of building a collaborative institute that would tackle fundamental questions in neuroscience from both theoretical and experimental perspectives. This vision exactly aligned with what I was looking for.

With Peter Dayan leading this institute, I am really looking forward to seeing the institute grow and mature over the coming years.

Drew: I was mainly drawn to the vision of the new institute. As envisioned by Peter Dayan, this would be a collaborative community where each Research Group Leader would have the support, independence, and flexibility to pursue their own ambitious projects.

This type of opportunity is rare and valuable. Jen and I have just spent the last five years as fellows at the Rowland Institute at Harvard, which also provides support and flexibility to encourage risk-taking among young scientists. We both believe strongly in this model of fostering research. By coming to Tübingen, we have an opportunity to engage with a larger community of neuroscientists, biologists, and engineers. I am very much looking forward to getting to know Tübingen.

How could the collaboration between the different institutes on the campus or other research facilities in Tübingen benefit your research?

Jennifer: I actually started out as a developmental biologist. My first scientific mentor was Eric Wieschaus, a truly inspiring scientist and Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard’s scientific partner in Heidelberg. One of the pleasures of coming to Tübingen has been the opportunity to finally meet Christiane.

More broadly, my work absolutely depends on knowledge and expertise from a diverse set of disciplines outside of neuroscience, including genetics, biophysics, optics, electrical and mechanical engineering. I feel very lucky to have as neighbours the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, and the awesome mechanical and electronics shops within this institute.

Drew: I started out in Mathematics at Princeton. Mathematical principles are not domain-specific. I am very interested in common themes that are applicable across disciplines, in neuroscience, biology, AI, and engineering. We are fortunate to have as neighbours the MPI for Developmental Biology and the MPI for Intelligent Systems. The machine and electronics shop in the MPI for Biological Cybernetics is one of the best equipped and staffed shops I have seen, and I am excited to begin working with them to set our ambitious research program in motion.

What are your impressions of Tübingen so far?

Jennifer: Tübingen is a beautiful place, and it reminds me a bit of where I grew up in Western Canada. With such a large student population, Tübingen is quite young and energetic. I have lived in college towns almost my entire life, so I love the vibe. The food is great, and I am very impressed with the per-capita density of bakeries.

Drew: The Tübingen MPI campus sits atop a hill, overlooking the town, the villages, and the black forest. Foxes, hedgehogs, and other furry creatures come out at night on the lawn. It’s so absurdly perfect that I feel like we’re in a Miyazaki cartoon.

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