October 2020 Trainee Spotlight
Name of Supervisor: Kai-Florian Storch
Degree: Graduate Student – PhD
Year of Study: Year 4
Program of Study: Integrated Program in Neuroscience
Why did you choose to come to the Douglas?
I was interested in systems neuroscience research and techniques, and the Douglas seemed to have a number of labs who were undertaking such work. While searching for a research supervisor, my current PI, Florian Storch approached me to join his lab. I got so excited after reading the abstract of the lab’s most recent publication, I read the article immediately and had the interview with my PI the following day! I felt assured that this lab – and the broader Douglas community where it was nestled – had everything that I was looking for, from the scientific approach to methods to work culture.
What did you do before coming to the Douglas?
I completed my Bachelor’s in Engineering at National Institute of Technology Warangal, majoring in Biotechnology, followed by my Master’s degree at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. My master’s project under the supervision of Dr. Samir Maji involved characterizing the aggregation properties of synuclein proteins in vitro, using a variety of biophysical techniques. I believe that the engineering perspective gained in my previous training has helped me develop an interdisciplinary approach to working on basic biology problems, which has always been where my passion lies.
Sell us your research:
Apart from the well-known 24-hour circadian rhythms, many species from Drosophila to humans demonstrate ultradian rhythms with periodicity of 2-5 hours and are reported to govern locomotion, sleep, feeding behaviours, body temperature, and hormone levels. Our lab recently demonstrated that ultradian sleep:activity cycles are governed by a second clock in the brain, the dopaminergic ultradian oscillator (DUO) that operates independently of the circadian clock, and generates rhythmic release of dopamine. An important feature of the DUO is its tunability: it can be tuned to periods ranging from 2 to +48 hours by altering dopamine levels by e.g. psychostimulants, suggesting its potential implication in psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder, which is characterized by mood swings that can occur at specific periodicities.
What excites you most about your research?
I am excited by the mystery shrouding ultradian rhythm since the precise mechanisms that regulate ultradian cycles of feeding, sleep, and hormones in mammals are still being investigated. Currently, I am excited about establishing the common vole as a superior model for studying ultradian rhythms. Although a number of tools and transgenic lines are available with the current mouse model, we need to ablate the circadian clock in order to study ultradian rhythms. On the other hand, the common vole exhibits robust ultradian sleep-wake and feeding behaviors, which are thought to be an evolutionary adaptation that synchronizes the vole colony to reduce predation risk. My preliminary data suggests that DUO is a governing clock in feeding cycle and social synchrony in voles, which may help us things like why we have meals every 3-4 hours (ultradian) in the daytime.
If you could go back in time and give your “younger self” advice, what would you do differently?
I don’t have any regrets as many of my decisions led me here, to a lab that is a great fit for me. One thing I could have done is focus more on developing devices and learning programming during my engineering education, as it would have helped me during my PhD, especially in automating many of my experiments.
Do you have any additional experiences or advice that you’d like to share with prospective Douglas trainees?
Don’t limit yourself to your niche! Instead, take advantage of talks and events held at the Douglas and in the broader McGill community. Exposing yourself to research from a broad spectrum of neuroscience will push you to think outside your comfort zone. It will also provide you with opportunities to learn and discuss experimental techniques other Douglas trainees utilize, which will help with troubleshooting current experiments or implementing new techniques to better answer your research questions.
While looking for a potential supervisor, broaden you research interest. Although you may already have a field of interest in mind, by keeping an open mind, you may come across a research problem that is far more exciting and a lab environment that is more conducive to your success. In order to evaluate this, it is important to read the lab’s publications and to talk to as many lab members as possible.
Graduate school is a training period where you hone your problem-solving skills, push your perseverance, and know when to stop pursuing a problem. And remember, while your passion in science is what brought you here, it is equally important to maintain a good work-life balance for your continued success!