Students from The University of New Mexico and local high schools recently had the opportunity to meet and brainstorm with experts in the field of neuroscience at the Specification of Complex Behaviors  symposium held on the UNM campus.

Senior undergraduates, post-baccalaureate students, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty interested in development and neuroscience attended the conference, which was coordinated by Mubarak Hussain Syed, assistant professor of Biology at UNM and head of the Syed Neural Diversity Lab, and his colleagues and co-organizers Drs. Katherine Nagel, David Schoppik of the New York University School of Medicine, and Josie Clowney from the University of Michigan.

Syed and his team in the Neural Diversity Lab investigate the genetic and molecular mechanics regulating neural diversity, from stem cells to neural circuits. The findings will help uncover the fundamental principles of nervous system development and potentially to understand and treat neurodevelopmental disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, ADHD, and autism. Conference attendees discussed “what developmental programs in the neural stem cells regulate the formation of distinct classes of neurons, how they wire together and regulate distinct behaviors,” he explained.

Neuroscience conference attendees 2023
Neuroscience conference attendees

Conference attendee Alexa Gonzales, who is studying Biology and Spanish, is the child of immigrant farmworker parents and a first-generation college student from Arrey, N.M. near Hatch.

“I’m particularly interested in neuroscience and right now I’m in Syed’s lab trying to understand the role of transcription factors in neuro development, how proteins regulate cells and how these cells are able to develop into neurons that each form their own identity in the brain and then these neurons have their own function which allows us to carry out certain behaviors,” she explained. 

Gonzales and other students in the lab are working to understand these essentials to understand the brain of someone with conditions such as autism or Alzheimer's.

“We need to first understand the development of these neurons, how these neurons form. These are the fundamental questions in order to understand someone with these kinds of diseases or conditions. Maybe it’s lacking one of these proteins or a group of genes that we’re studying that we don’t completely understand now but that we will understand in the future so it will help us create the treatments or at least understand the differences in the brain of someone who doesn’t have a neurological condition compared to someone who does,” she said.

Gonzales spent the summer at Harvard studying mice brains and behavior and noted, “I wouldn’t be able to go there without the opportunity such as the Syed lab… His lab has prepared me for future endeavors.” She hopes to return to Harvard as a graduate student.

Chris Doe from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and director of the developmental biology program at University of Oregon was among the presenters. Doe has been a mentor to both Syed and UNM Associate Professor of Biology and head of the Johnston Lab Christopher Johnston, both of whom were trained and mentored by him at the University of Oregon. Chris Doe’s specialty is developmental neuroscience, and he is a developmental biologist trying to understand how the nervous system is built from the embryo to an adult. Chris is a great scientist and an exceptional mentor and has trained over 30 faculty which is very impressive. 

Like Syed’s lab group, Doe works with fruit flies.

“Working with fruit flies is cheap but fast to do these experiments and what we learn turns into hypotheses for people working on mice or, clinically, humans and they can use this for background to design their experiments more efficiently to save them money and time.”

Doe noted that Syed was always an excellent organizer, including organizing backpacking trips in my lab and cricket matches at the University of Oregon. 

“This symposium is really impressive and important because it exposes undergrads and graduates here at UNM and beyond to cutting edge science,” Doe said. “There’s really an amazing group of scientists here to help motivate young people from this area to stay in science or join into science.”

“Also, it’s intrinsically important because of the crosstalk between all of the people here, we all network and learn from each other, and it’s an advance to all of our research,” Doe continued. “Coming here is an intellectual stimulus that makes our work go faster because we learn things here. There is an impressive amount of information conveyed between people, sometimes at lunch, during the slide presentations, and sitting in the van on our way to somewhere, next to each other in random arrangements talking and learning from each other. So, it’s both outreach and scientific education and science advancement, pure and simple.

Conference Speakers include Syed, Clowney, Nagel, Doe, and:

  • Professor Emeritus Jim Truman, University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories 
  • David Schoppik, assistant professor, Department of Neuroscience and Physiology, NYU Grossman School of Medicine 
  • Alex Kolodkin, deputy director of Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences and professor of Neuroscience, John Hopkins University  
  • Professor Emerita Lynn Riddiford, University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories
  • Minoru Koyama, assistant professor at Department of Cell & Systems Biology at University of Toronto
  • Elizabeth J. Hong, professor of Neuroscience and Chen Scholar, Caltech Division of Biology and Biological Engineering
  • Haluk Lacin, University of Missouri-Kansas City 

Trainee talks included: 

  • Noah Dillon, Graduate student, University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon
  • Pratyush Kandimalla, Graduate Student, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 

“Our students enjoyed interacting with the leading figures in neuroscience, four National Academy members among them,” Syed observed. “At the end of the presentations, trainees could present their work during poster sessions and get feedback on their science. It was a very productive and impactful event. Some of the undergrads made connections and have already visited the guest’s labs. Scientists at various training levels, undergrads, graduate students, research scientists, and the faculty, including myself, benefited tremendously from this event. We are hopeful we can organize this event bi-annually.” 

Photo by Professor Syed. Neuroscience students and experts discuss research during at poster session at the symposium.

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