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  • Katy Pallister

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Associate Professor Laura Colgin

“When I was a teenager I wanted to start running some kind of experiment on my pet rat”

Associate Professor Colgin is a neuroscientist whose laboratory investigates how brain rhythms affect memory operations in animals. Brain rhythms are waves of electrical activity which co-ordinate large groups of cells (neurons) to be active, and quiet, at approximately the same time. This allows signals to be conveyed more effectively through the brain.

“If you think of a lot of people in a stadium just having their own individual conversations, then somebody on the field is not going to be able to distinguish their separate messages,” Colgin explained. “But if the crowd suddenly start chanting in unison, then their message can be heard very easily.” By understanding the relationship between these brain rhythms and behaviour, particularly in regard to memory, Colgin and her lab hope to provide novel insights into diseases associated with abnormal rhythmic activities, such as schizophrenia, autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

For Colgin, the investigation of learning and memory has been a long sought-after goal. “When I was a teenager, maybe around 13 years old, I read a book about science research and learnt about how through your own actions and through your own freewill, you could change your brain chemistry and how you behave in the future. I was really interested in doing research on what were the limits of that, if there were any. At the time, I had a pet rat and I wanted to start running some kind of experiment on it to do with learning and memory.”

Determined to continue her exploration of the brain, Colgin completed an undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of New Orleans. She then landed a position at a medical centre helping with the clinical testing of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. “When I first graduated, I thought I wanted to do this Alzheimer's disease research,” Colgin said. “But it was very heart wrenching to work with patients with memory disorders, and it also didn't have that hands-on level that animal research has. I realised that it wasn't really a good fit for me.”

“I immediately knew that it was the right place for me.”

Having spent her PhD at UC Irvine, understanding the links between brain rhythms and learning and memory, Colgin was ready to discover how this manifested itself in freely behaving animals. Intrigued by the idea of living and working in another country, Colgin travelled to a learning and memory meeting in Europe, to try to connect with other researchers. This was when she first met Nobel Laureates May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser.

“I was already a big fan of their work, and then at this meeting I saw them each give talks, which were absolutely outstanding. I just really loved the way that they did neurophysiology research. So, I approached them and said could I come and do a postdoc in your lab? They brought me out for an interview in Norway, and I immediately knew that it was the right place for me. May-Britt and Edvard had a way of really caring about the people that worked in their lab. For example, they knew the names of everybody's children, and when I was on my interview, there were mothers nursing their babies. Not only are the Mosers absolutely fantastic scientists but they had created such a wonderful environment in their lab.”

Colgin’s interview, and subsequent acceptance to the Moser lab, came at a pivotal time in all of their careers. The Moser duo had just discovered a new type of nerve cell in the brain, called grid cells, which generate a coordinate system and allow for precise positioning and pathfinding. Ultimately, the Mosers demonstrated how these grid cells, together with place cells, another type of nerve cell discovered several decades earlier by John O’Keefe, make up the “inner GPS” in the brain. The work earned them a joint share of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Although Colgin was relatively unfamiliar with these cells, a sneak peek during her interview of the Moser’s award-winning work turned her head. “They showed me a figure that mapped the path of the animal with dots at locations where the grid cells in the animal’s brain were active. The dots created this perfect honeycomb-type pattern, and it just astonished me that a neuron could do the computation that allowed it to create a geometric pattern. The hairs on my arms stood up, I just had never seen anything like that before.”

“I think that you have to fail if you want to innovate”

Throughout her postdoc, Colgin combined her newfound love for place cells with her early passion for brain rhythms. Now the leader of her own lab, Colgin has woven all of her previous experiences together to generate exciting research areas. “Every experience that I've had has really brought me to where I am today. For example, in my lab now, we are continuing to work on brain rhythms and record place cells and grid cells, just as I learned to do in my postdoc.

“We're also trying to do two things that probably won’t work, because they’re kind of crazy. But I think that you have to fail if you want to innovate. If you really want to push the boundaries it's not best to do the easiest thing, you should really try something that’s probably going to fail.”

“It's so important for me to validate those experiences that are different to mine”

Colgin has worked hard to create an inclusive and supportive environment in her lab, like the one she experienced in the Moser lab. “I'm really proud of the people that I've trained, seeing them achieving their dreams and get what they wanted out of the experience.

“For me personally, I feel it's very unhealthy to compare yourself to other people, because everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. By having a non-competitive atmosphere in the lab, I feel like everyone's really supportive of each other. I also love to bring people into my lab that have really different training backgrounds and bring something to the team that I don't have experience of and expertise that other people in the lab don't have.”

Colgin extends this thinking beyond the lab, particularly when tackling discrimination. She believes that it is important to listen to and learn from others who have experienced different challenges and struggles to herself. “It's so important for me to validate those experiences, even though I personally haven't experienced some of those things. It's important to learn from those who have experienced discrimination, listen to what they have to say, and then use your voice or the spheres of influence that you have to just amplify what they’re saying.”

Associate Professor Colgin was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Denise Head. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates who they want to pass their award onto to create a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event later this year. More details to follow.

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