Courtesy of Steve Ramirez
A Young Scientist with a Bright Future, Steve Ramirez
In April 2 of 2013 President Barack Obama launched the BrainResearch through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative or Brain Initiative. The purpose of this project is to develop new technologies and methods in a collaborative effort among the best scientific laboratories to map the activity of every neuron in the brain. The aim is to find cures and treatments for neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, epilepsy and traumatic brain injuries to mention a few.
Neuroscience, especially the newly burgeoning technique of Optogenetics, has become a popular field. There are now many laboratories the United States and other countries working on memory using this technique. One of them is at MIT, which has made an impact in the progress on memory. In July of 2013, the well-recognized magazine “Science” published an article by Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu led by Professor Susumu Tonegawa titled “Creating a False Memory in the Hippocampus.” In their research, they were able to genetically label neurons from the Dentate gyrus (DG), known to be crucially involved in forming episodic memories, and activated these neurons with lasers. One of the authors behind this discovery is an energetic, humble and hard-working 25-year-old MIT PhD candidate in the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Steve Ramirez.
Steve Ramirez is a first-generation American college graduate. His success derived from his parents escaping the civil war in their native El Salvador in the late 1970s. His parents moved frequently from New York to New Jersey for work opportunities, then to Los Angeles, and finally relocated in Boston, Mass. where Steve was born and raised.
Steve completed his undergraduate education in Boston University. During his sophomore year, he became interested in science and Optogenetics. His decision to pursue this field of science was the result of volunteering in a neuroscience laboratory. Although his expectations were not as he’d envisioned–a life in lab was as intellectually taxing as it was rewarding—he didn’t get discouraged. Instead, Steve decided to volunteer in the laboratory of Professor Howard Eichenbaum, where research in memory neuroscience was being conducted. The latter proved to have in Steve Ramirez’ words, “vibrant, upbeat and [there were] wonderfully passionate students of neuroscience asking some of the loftiest questions in memory research.” It wasn’t difficult for him to want to be part of the research dynamics in that laboratory. Ramirez enjoyed how everyone led a balanced life at work and in his or her leisure time. His experience in Professor Howard Eichenbaum’s laboratory helped him look for similar opportunities when Steve was applying to grad school. He wanted to contribute his work in a lab that enabled the similar dynamics as the laboratory where he had volunteered in. The ideal workplace “had to have an atmosphere full of scientific camaraderie and endless creativity.” The Brain and Cognitive Science Department in MIT seemed to offer that and Steve now feels grateful to work in the laboratory of Nobel Prize Winner Professor Susumu Tonegawa. It is important to feel included and encouraged in a job and it seems that Steve found the perfect place, since his advisor guides him through his research as best as possible.
Steve describes his job as two complementing motions. The first consists of dissecting the inner-workings of something as seemingly abstract as memory to obtain a glimpse of how the physical machinery of the brain functions. The seconds is about teaching those discoveries to all students.
Additionally, his passion for science is evident through his never-ending curiosity about how the brain is still a mystery. What’s even more impressing is the technology used to study the brain without having to cut open a person, nowadays a Functional magneticresonance imaging or functional MRI (fMRI) aids scientists to understand it more clearly. In addition, lasers can be utilized to induce memory reactivation or to inhibit certain depression-related behaviors. Steve is passionate about his research since it brings out that “childlike sense of wonder,” as he describes it.
Steve’s dedication has led him to win several awards, published several papers, and has given several talks. Due to his dedication, persistence and amazing research, Steve Ramirez has gained the title of the “World’s Top 35 Innovators under the Age of 35” by the MIT Technology Review, being the only Hispanic so far to be nominated. He is considered one of the few scientists and the youngest to work in this field. Now he has also gained the opportunity to teach a neuroscience course entitle “Touring Brain Systems via Hollywood” at Tufts University.
Steve Ramirez’s career success is the result of dedication and the willingness to pursue a field as demanding as science. It is easy to assume that minority groups encounter more obstacles during their education. However, Steve shares his view on how his background played a role in his education. When asked if he ever had to overcome any obstacles while in college, his response was, “Science is one of the few disciplines that truly transcends national borders, ethnicities, gender, and any other construct…I embraced my Hispanic background as an opportunity to join the international family of scientists and to tackle some of the toughest questions neuroscience has to offer. I look at it as an opportunity to promote outreach, specially at MIT by bringing students during the summer to learn about research, and to continue to inspire highly motivated students from all backgrounds to contribute the single most important thing in science: ideas.” The best way he can demonstrate how race, socioeconomic, or gender cannot prevent anyone from pursuing science is with physicist Jeremy Bernstein’s description of what the scientific field involves, “…a great sense of elation and a deepened admiration for what the human family at its best, can accomplish.” Steve believes that science should equalize [everyone] and encourages students to seek out these present opportunities if that’s where their interest takes them.
His advice to students in STEM is to ask as many questions as possible (sending emails to professors whom it’d be interesting collaborating with), to take various courses in science, and to keep an open mind about where your career may lead. He also emphasizes the importance to join a laboratory if grad school is the next step in someone’s profession. In his words, “these experiences in lab are essential because they really color in the process of science, and they let grad school admission committees know that you’ve walked the research walk. Make it a point to really personalize your statements of purpose for each school and highlight both what you bring to the table, intellectually and practically, and how the university’s program is perfectly suited for your background in science. Just as importantly, be sure to talk to current students in the program of interest so that they give you the ‘E True Hollywood Story’ of working at that university or under a given supervisor.” Steve Ramirez wants other students to succeed in a field they are truly passionate about and advises “let your interests guide you because it’s more important to love what you do for work than it is to have a few extra letters tacked on your name after earning a degree.”
Steve has worked diligently for his current success. Nevertheless, he acknowledges the support his role models have provided for him. Some of them include his professors and teachers in neuroscience, but the most inspiring people are his parents because it was through their example that he learned how to be a hard-working person with a great work ethic as well.
Besides science, Steve enjoys spending time with his friends, but one of his favorite hobbies is running and playing piano. He explains, “One of the best outlets I have is music. When you sit down and, say, infuse your own personality to the top 40 songs of 2013 on the piano, you’d be surprised how ear-friendly Taylor Swift can increasingly sound. It really connects you with some corners of emotions that only melodies can express.”
Steve’s future plans are to have a faculty position and have his own laboratory at a university where creativity and curiosity can be practiced. He also hopes to teach students about the brain by being able to run his own courses in neuroscience.
There is no doubt that that Steve Ramirez is a role model for many in science.
Courtesy of TED Talks