Interview with Professor Mark Hübener

Our PhD students Nadia Giordano and Elena Tantillo interviewed Professor Hübener after his seminar

In the study of different areas of the cortex, we enter into a wohubenerrld made of connections and perfect balance between neural circuits. In your opinion, what is the most fascinating aspect? Where did your interest in biology come from?

I found biology very attractive when I was a teenager and I read a lot about animal behaviour. At the time, the most important scientist in animal behaviour was Konrad Lorenz and his books inspired me in the study of this field. When I have been at school it was very clear that I was attract to natural sciences instead of any of the humanities. I specialized basically on biology and chemistry and what I wanted to study was biochemistry and I found very cool things at the time. It was very hard to get in at the time because I needed the highest grade possible in school, which I did not have, and then I studied biology and not biochemistry but I realize to have made the right choice. At a certain point, I had to start making a decision, and I decided that I was attracted to study neurobiology and brain sciences. What attracted me was that many things are not known. Then I was searching for diploma thesis, I happened to come across a person that worked on flies, I went in his lab and he became my supervisor. In terms of experiments, the most influential one, what I found very cool was an experiment on the fly optic flow, we recorded from cells of the lobula plate and we showed that cells moved in grating and what we realized, and this excited me, was that cells respond in that very specific fashion. I understood that brain research was my way.

You are one of the most important scientist who shed some light on the complicated mechanisms of the cortex, and in particular on the visual cortex plasticity. What do you consider to be your most important findings, and could you comment on their implications?

Actually, some of the most important findings in the visual cortex were made before me. Hubel and Wiesel’s work provided fundamental insight into information processing in the visual system and laid the foundation for the field of visual neuroscience. They have had many achievements, including, but not limited to, the discovery of orientation selectivity in visual cortex neurons.

On the other way, I am particularly proud of a couple of recent findings regarding how the visual information is processed. One of my post doc, George Keller, and Cristopher Niell in Michael Stryker lab before him, found that within the visual cortex there are not only neurons responding to visual stimuli, but, basically, there’s a very strong representation of motor activity. It was something that, at least to me and to many other scientists, was very new! Basically, it means that, in addition to the passive processing of visual stimuli, many other information are present in the visual cortex. The attractive idea is also that the visual cortex processing goes behind the mere representation of an image; the visual cortex seems to compare some internally generated idea of what an object, a face, is, to what really is coming in. In other words, there would be a comparison between what the cortex is expecting to get as an input and the real input. That is quite new and we will know something more in the next future.

Neuroscience has begun to change since the interaction with other disciplines has started. Novel imaging techniques allow to get a look from outside on the neural circuit activity while the Next Generation Sequencing techniques allow to have a broad vision from inside. In this view, in your opinion, how neuroscience could evolve in the next future?

The future is not predictable by definition, but it’s right that neuroscience in many aspects have been driven by new tools in development, in particular molecular tools, to look at gene expression patters. That would be going to be important in the future as well is something that is obvious, that devises to image or record neural activity get smaller and more specific. Soon one will be able to record from much larger number of neurons. For example, optogenetic is a very exciting and cool tool that can do many things and it starts to appear in many works respect to the standard techniques. If you send something about optogenetic to a good journal, they never tell you “we don’t take this”. So actually new tools have to be used on the basis of the question but they have yet to be available and standardized. Many people do it in theory but there is something that maybe should be strengthened even more to try to think of the theoretical framework.

What advice would you give to phd students at early stages of their careers in neuroscience? How to be a successful scientist?

The first advice that I would like to give you is to be sure of what you really want to do in your life. Doing science is the most wonderful job in the world, I think, but a tough business too, also from a career point of view. Unfortunately, not everybody will be professors at the end. So, as soon as possible during your career, you have to become realistic and to figure out whether you really want to face all the sacrifices that doing science involves.

Speaking from my personal experience, I also would like to suggest you to pay attention when you have to choose your laboratory, not only for your PhD, but also in the future. Indeed, it is very important for you to work on the topic that really have an interest for you but also in the right environment for you. I advise you to talk not only to the PIs but also to the other students or post docs in the laboratory to get an idea of what the lab really is.