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Scientist Spotlight: Darwin Berg, PhD
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Scientist Spotlight, 1st Edition, September 2013

From Our Field…

 Scientist Spotlight: Darwin Berg, PhD 


Interview conducted by: Christie D. Fowler, PhD

Dr. Darwin Berg received his PhD from the University of California, Berkley, in Molecular Biology and subsequently obtained postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. He is currently Distinguished Professor in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. He has been a notable leader in the field, which is evidenced by his cutting-edge research and authorship on over 140 publications. Among his numerous awards and accomplishments, Dr. Berg has been recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Javits Neuroscience Investigator Award. Dr. Berg was asked to share his thoughts on his career and the field, and his responses to the interview from July of 2013 are below.


1.    Why did you choose to become a scientist?  

When I was young, science seemed to offer the best possibilities for answering fundamental questions about the universe – how things work, why we’re here.  And it still seems that way to me today.  

2.    What are your current research interests?  

I became interested in how nicotinic cholinergic signaling shapes brain development and how it modulates brain function.  This initially focused on how the endogenous, normal nicotinic signaling mechanisms work but now has expanded to include how nicotine from external sources hijacks and distorts those processes.  

3.    How have your research interests evolved over the course of your career?  

Initially my group and I focused on understanding basic molecular mechanisms that underlie synapse formation, using nicotinic synapses as a model.  This led to the larger role of nicotinic signaling in driving network assembly as it helps shape the kinds of synapses made and their locations.  Each level drew us to the next, so that now we are focusing more on network function, its relevance for behavior, and how nicotinic signaling participates at multiple levels.  Unavoidably, this led us to the question of addiction – how nicotine promotes and sustains addiction, and the extremely unfortunate consequences for brain function and body health.  


4.    What do you view as the main challenges for your field? From your perspective, what do you view will be the next biggest breakthrough(s)?  

A major challenge likely to be solved in the foreseeable future is how decision-making is achieved by complex neural circuits.  A hopeful development is the new BRAIN Initiative (Brain Activity Mapping) which is likely to produce revolutionary new technologies taking us in exciting and productive directions.  Can’t help mentioning, though, that one challenge initially drawing many of us into the field, and one likely to remain with us for a long time, is the challenge of understanding the nature and basis of consciousness.  


5.    Do you currently or have you served as a scientific consultant for a company, as an editor for a journal, and/or a position in a scientific organization (e.g., SRNT, SfN, etc.)? Based on your experiences, what are the pros and cons of participating in this respect?  

Having had the good fortune to serve both as a councilor and a treasurer for SfN, I’d like to assure younger scientists that although this kind of service requires time and work, it allows you to interact with some amazingly talented people who bring new insight and knowledge to problem-solving and group responsibilities.  It can be both inspiring and educational.  


6.    About how much time per week do you commit to professional organizations, administrative duties, teaching, clinical requirements or similar?  

The research operation, happily, usually gets top priority and receives the majority of my time and effort.  This includes discussions with everyone in the group, analyzing data, planning projects, writing papers, and chasing new ideas.  Teaching takes about a third of my time half of the year, and offers the reward of helping to inspire the next generation of scientists.  Administrative duties vary but are necessary, i.e. contributing your share as others have done for you, including (hopefully only on a transient basis) a tour as Chair of Section or Department.  


7.    How much time per week do you spend writing papers for publication and/or grant applications?  

Too much time writing papers and grant applications, just like my colleagues, but I don’t know of a better mechanism at present than “peer review”, all things considered.  


8.    Have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities? How do you prioritize work and non-work activities?  

Work usually comes first except for family and needs of close friends.  And after meeting a series of heavy-duty work deadlines, I think it’s essential to build in some release time and adventure (a “road-trip” in old parlance) for rejuvenation.  


9.    What strategies have you found to be most beneficial for managing all of your commitments?  

No simple strategies come to mind, except for the common sense priorities of addressing emergencies before they become train-wrecks, and always putting research ahead of other professional obligations.  


10. What is the current size of your laboratory? In your opinion, what is the best balance of postdocs, graduate students, and technicians?  

Currently our research group has 6 postdocs and project scientists, 2 technicians, 2 visiting graduate students, and assistance from part-time computer and administrative people.  Project scientists and postdocs bring valuable expertise, experience, and knowledge to the lab, but it is particularly important to also include graduate students; they can add a valuable combination of enthusiasm and daring.  


11. What is the best advice that you ever received from one of your mentors?  

Enjoy graduate school and your time as a postdoc.  It is the closest most of us get to full-time hands-on research, and, unlike many other professions, you’re doing the real thing early on, rather than requiring endless years of specialization, interning, and all the rest before getting a shot.  


12. What advice would you have for students starting their academic career? What qualities do you look for when recruiting graduate students or postdocs?  

Think and read widely; don’t lose sight of the big questions.  Finishing a PhD thesis usually requires really digging down into one issue, but when you come up for air, look around, consider other fields, and broaden your expertise at every opportunity.  And don’t be afraid of trying new ideas that fail.  That’s how big discoveries are made.  


13. What advice would you have for postdoctoral trainees transitioning into faculty positions?  

Get the research done and get the papers out.  The rest will fall into place.  Of course, also interact widely - go to meetings, talk about your work, get exposure.  But still, most important, is to get that exciting work of yours into the “in press” mode.  


14. Are there any additional comments you would like to make?  

One of the amazing and wonderful things about science is the excitement of new discoveries.  Just when you think it’s all becoming routine and maybe the best is over, a new discovery bursts in, new fields emerge, and you can’t wait to get out of bed each morning and have a go all over again.  

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