“Choosing My Own Path”
When I was interviewed for the Ph.D. program at ELSC, I was asked if I knew what it was like to be a scientist, if I knew what I was getting myself into. Like in every successful interview, I lied: Growing up with a grandfather in academia, and at the Hebrew University no less, gives me a pretty good idea, and I know it’s for me. The truth was that I had no clue what my grandfather’s day-to-day looked like. Even worse, my grandfather, Prof. Amiel Berman, is the most curious person I know, and talking about his work lights a spark in his eyes. I didn’t know what lights a spark in my eyes, but it was hard to imagine that work could be it.
This curiosity, which I may or may not have enough of, was a crucial ingredient in various steps along the way – from joining ELSC, to choosing a lab within ELSC, and choosing your next step after finishing the Ph.D. (Academia or industry? Everyone wants to know!) There are many crossroads and they seem to lead to very long, windy paths. There are also smaller crossroads; when a certain project ends, or when another fails, we have to reorient ourselves. Usually a long time passes from being interested in a question, through finding an (often partial) answer, to finally publishing these results. During this time, I sometimes grow weary of the subject, which forces me to dig deep and remember what I found interesting in the first place, what mystery is left.
Perhaps mystery is a better word than curiosity when describing what’s compelling about being a scientist, or what impacts choosing one project over another. Like in other aspects of life, I found I need a specific balance between mystery and certainty or knowledge in a research area. Knowing a person completely and thoroughly leaves no room for surprises and could get boring. But a completely unpredictable person or situation can be terrifying, leaving you in the dark with nothing to hold on to. Choosing my research focus required a similar balance. My research at the Mezer lab focuses on the structure of long connections in the brain. The brain has long been separated into regions, each part in charge of a different function. But for the brain to be fully functioning, the areas need to communicate with each other. (In fact, neuroscience as a whole is quite similar – each lab is studying a different system, at a different level, but for understanding the full picture, the labs need to collaborate and communicate.) In the brain, this communication is made through connections which are essentially like electrical cables. Really interesting things can happen when these connections “misbehave.” For example, some people might start associating numbers with colors, and tastes with sounds. We still don’t understand why, or how exactly, the senses can start cross talking. To be able to study these sorts of phenomena, we need to know something – the fact that this has to do with connections and that these connections form electrical signals is a decent starting point. On the other hand, if I already had all of the answers, there would be no question, things would start to appear trivial. See what I mean about balance of mystery and knowledge?
I found that at times my choices could be affected by the public perception of how interesting a question is. This is often translated into the following question: What is the value of what you do in the greater scheme of things? Being a Ph.D. student in neuroscience, I get a lot of impressed reactions from people. This leads to expectations (or perceived expectations) that are hard to fulfill. The second question that follows being impressed is often, So what do YOU study? What do you DO?
I’m always worried my answer will be boring or disappointing, as what I do won’t help cure brain cancer and won’t help them better understand their dreams. The problem is that it’s very hard to tell how the small piece of knowledge you’re adding to the field contributes to the larger picture and how (or when) that will lead to actual benefits to human life. In my case, I can only hope that an improved understanding of the structure of connections in the brain can be translated into being relevant for understanding functions and diseases related to these connections. Benefiting human life may not be what drives everyone in neuroscience, but it’s one hell of a bonus. I try to focus on more achievable and reasonable bonuses like getting to solve some of the more seemingly mundane day-to-day puzzles, be it small bugs in the code or figuring out the right approach for data analysis.
About a year ago I presented my research in a bar in Jerusalem, in front of a crowd of non-scientists. A day later I found a message from someone I didn’t know saying he was inspired to see that I speak on what I do with passion. Maybe I do have a spark in my eyes after all. Nowadays I’m nearing the end of my Ph.D., standing at a huge crossroad. This time my decision will impact not only what I research, but also in what continent I’ll live in the next few years. Now, just like in previous intersections, I try to talk to as many people as I can whose opinion I appreciate, be it my friends, my family, and the researchers in ELSC, and somehow combine those with my gut feeling. This time, however, after so many years of making these decisions, I do know what it means to be a scientist, and I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
Shai Berman started the Ph.D. program at ELSC in 2014. Her work in the Mezer lab focuses on the relationship between white-matter function and micro-structure. Berman earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and cognitive science from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2010, graduating magna cum laude. She is involved in community outreach initiatives such as volunteering as a surf instructor for youth at risk with the Israeli non-profit HaGal Sheli (My Wave). Berman is the granddaughter of Prof. Amiel Berman, who received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in 1959 in animal sciences and is a professor emeritus of the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Hebrew University.