Edward Ruthazer (pictured left) is a mapmaker of sorts, but the maps he makes are not of places in the world. Ruthazer studies brain development, charting intricate neurocircuitries in the hope of advancing treatments for injuries of the central nervous system and therapies for developmental disorders. Like the neural connections he maps, Ruthazer's path has twisted and turned from China to Japan and across North America, as he has investigated the mechanisms that shape the wiring of the human brain. For this young neuroscientist, working overseas in different cultures and acquiring new personal and professional skills provided a sense of independence and confidence as a researcher, qualities that he tries to instill in the students and trainees working in his laboratory.
Less than a year after finishing his second postdoc at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Ruthazer is settling in as assistant professor at McGill University's Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI) in Montreal, Quebec. In his laboratory, Ruthazer and his staff are asking fundamental questions about how the brain's neurocircuitry—the network of connections between neurons—develops.
Using digital imagery and gene-transfer methods, he and his team observe labeled neurons in living tadpoles. The animals are subjected to sensory stimuli as the team analyzes alterations in neuronal connectivity. In one project, they place tadpoles in chambers with flashing lights and examine the changes in connectivity in the retinal ganglion cells in response to these visual stimulations. The results in tadpoles, says Ruthazer, are of more than academic interest. "We're not far removed from other vertebrate species, so what we learn from frogs is absolutely relevant to human development."
Ruthazer believes that investigating animal neurocircuit development will eventually lead to a better understanding of diseases, including schizophrenia and autism, where abnormal neurological wiring is thought to occur early in life. The developing post-natal brain, Ruthazer explains, forms and refines synaptic connections in response to a set of inputs from the environment, a process that becomes less robust with age. Ruthazer hopes his research on rewiring may eventually bring hope to adults suffering from accidental brain injuries, and offer the possibility of early diagnosis and treatment of autism and schizophrenia. "If we can re-introduce structural elasticity in adults, then the opportunity to recover from strokes, for example, is enormous."
Go East, Young Man
As an undergraduate at Princeton University, Ruthazer exercised his own developing brain to fulfill longstanding interests in the life sciences and languages, graduating with a major in biology and a certificate in East Asian studies. During this period he began to wonder how the human brain interprets environmental stimuli. While learning French and Chinese, he became fascinated how sensory experiences, like language acquisition, are processed neurologically. "I remember starting out with a simple interest in languages and language acquisition as a hobby," explains Ruthazer. "Now it's taken me to looking at how the brain is hardwired, and understanding how the influence of environment can alter this wiring structure."
In his senior year at Princeton in 1988, he completed his first neuroscience project, on songbird auditory systems. It was then that Ruthazer decided that graduate school was his next step. But before he could commit to his research career, he says, he felt like he needed to practice his language skills, so he packed his bags and traveled to the southern tip of Manchuria, China, to teach English for a year at a university. It was, he says, an amazing learning experience; being immersed in a culture and language so different from his own provided many new environmental stimuli.
Back in the U.S. a year later, Ruthazer commenced his neuroscience training, studying the plasticity of neural systems for his Ph.D. at University of California at San Francisco. In 1996, after he had completed his doctorate, he had an opportunity to do a postdoc in Japan--his wife's homeland--on a joint National Science Foundation/Japan Society for the Promotion of Science fellowship.
"It was a good opportunity for us to live close to my wife's family and learn the culture," he explains. "But on top of that, I knew that I wanted to learn about imaging work, and there was this lab at Osaka University that had a known researcher in the field who was willing to take me on." Under the supervision of Nobuhiko Yamamoto, he was able to observe the formation of synaptic connections using slices of functioning cortical tissues.
Gaining Independence Abroad
Ruthazer feels that his 2-year postdoc in Japan helped him become more independent. Despite a lab environment that he calls "extremely supportive," Ruthazer found that he was unable to lean heavily on a culture that seemed foreign. "When you leave your familiar support structure and you're an outsider, you have to find your niche by yourself." He may have found similar opportunities back in the United States, he observes, but going to Japan also gave him the opportunity to learn state-of-the-art imaging techniques and to set up a valuable collaboration in a foreign country, while also developing a greater sense of independence.
Ruthazer returned stateside in 1999 and took up a postdoc in Holly Cline's lab at Cold Spring Harbor. Cline, Ruthazer recalls, entrusted him with some special opportunities. He was able to pursue novel experimental approaches on his own initiative, for instance, and to give talks on her behalf at meetings she was unable to attend. These opportunities further developed his sense of independence and gave him a better grasp of the direction his field was going in. Ruthazer recommends that other scientific trainees pursue similar opportunities. "When you choose a postdoctoral advisor one of the things that you should look for is that kind of generosity, the willingness to share," he says.
Ruthazer's growing independence and confidence helped him secure a faculty position at McGill in 2004. It was a good match: His research interests fit well at the institute, with its expertise in imaging techniques like MRI and PET.
Making the transition from a postdoc to a faculty position at MNI, though, has required a bit of neural development, especially in the areas of his brain responsible for cognitive tasks like management and grant-writing "As a faculty member, there are a lot of people that depend on me now." Managing the lab, plus writing grant proposals and attending committee meetings, take up valuable research time. Fortunately, MNI deliberately limits the amount of teaching and committee work required of researchers setting up their labs, for which he is grateful. "It's already hard enough to get going in a very competitive research funding environment."
Ruthazer's experiences have helped to shape his management style; he is convinced that a well-managed neuroscience lab can be self-sufficient. He encourages his students to strive to be independent, and to learn what is necessary to carry out a well-controlled, well-designed experiment. He sees his role as professor as principally to keep things on track and help the students stay up to date with the latest trends.
In setting up shop in a predominately French-speaking province, Ruthazer feels that he has, in a sense, come full circle. Even though his current research is not connected with studying languages, per se, language acquisition remains a great influence. He is amazed at how adaptable the human brain is and how fast it can learn new things, including language. "While I may not be studying it directly, it's still forming the way that I look at the scientific questions I tackle everyday."
For more information on Ruthazer's work and the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI), check out their Web site.
Andrew Fazekas is the Canadian Correspondent for Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.