Discovering how neurons in the brain can “encode” minute details of complicated movements in the human body based on a study on the brain of birds, earned Jonnathan Singh, a Costa Rican neurobiologist, the entrance ticket to the prestigious Harvard University.
Singh also discovered how these same neurons can be “turned off” to help us maintain steady / stable movements at important times. His work will soon be published in the journal Nature, the most prestigious in the scientific field and a kind of Olympus for this type of research. The Tico scientist, whose career is beginning to take off in a promising way, has ambitions to create his own research team and lead even more challenging discoveries.
How did his career turn to neurobiology?
“After getting a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and genetics, indecision took hold of me, because in the scientific field the possibilities are very open. During high school, at the University of Florida, I began to feel an interest in the brain, and it seemed appropriate to start research in that field”, he says.
He continues: “After I had made up my mind, I began to send emails to almost 70 universities, literally, and in the end, of three that responded, I was interested in Duke University, in North Carolina, so I did not hesitate to drive 12 hours there and start my dream. At Duke I got a lot of experience, and in the scientific field, in the end, that experience is what opened the doors for me”.
Why did you decide to focus your studies in neurobiology on the brain of birds?
“As part of the PhD, you have to do rotations in the labs, and when I started studying the neurons of birds, I became very interested. The most interesting thing about studying your brain is that you can see many things happening in a living being in real time and in a totally new way”.
“It is really fascinating to see how these biological circuits are contributing to the behavior of the animal. Studying those connections is an intersection of electrical engineering, virology, field biology, mathematics, and computation. “Determining how these trillions of neurons and their connections give you awareness, is really the question we wanted to answer with the research”.
How is all that related to the human brain?
“What we are trying to do by studying birds is to simplify the problem to better understand how a neuron contributes to behavior. Each neuron is contributing to thousands of processes of perceiving, acting, thinking and processing. Studying the link between neurons is more complicated in a more complex animal or a human being, which is why I chose birds”.
“Now, the magic of the songbird is that they have developed a subsystem of neurons within their brain that is only dedicated to the acquisition of song and its execution. In short, this whole group of neurons only uses it to sing and learn to sing, and that makes it very easy to understand how neurons contribute to behavior”.
What will your role be at Harvard? Why is it so crucial for a Costa Rican scientist to take this step?
He states, “For me personally, it is important to reach a community where everyone is smarter than you, it is the only way to learn and progress. Sometimes it is better to be the least knowledgeable person in the room”.
“At Harvard I will be pursuing a postdoc and moving towards research on how the human body and any organism sends signals to the brain, which sounds simple, but it is a process that no one understands with certainty yet”.
How can young people take you as inspiration? How to make science more attractive?
“They have to take into account that everything is very accessible now, that is, online there are free classes in programming, computing and mathematics, which open the doors to all scientific fields”.
“I personally advocate for people to form a community in science, study it… there is plenty of global interest in learning about science, believe it or not. I also have to give special recognition to the scientific colleges of Costa Rica”.
In the Scientific College of Cartago they gave me the opportunity to have contact with science in a more direct way, which was an important contribution for me to reach this position. I have to say that scientific colleges are invaluable, since they give the opportunity for science to be universal, without distinction of social or economic class, and that opens many doors”, the Tico scientist concludes.