Jess Cardin Says It's a Good Time to Be a Systems Neuroscientist

24 October 2019

In late September Dr Jess Cardin of Yale University joined us at the SWC to discuss her work on flexible function in the cortex. SWC PhD student Sarah Olesen sat down with her to talk about how lab work evolves and why it’s such an exciting time to be a neuroscientist.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.


Dr Cardin: Science is really, really hard. You have to be an optimist to do this for a living, and you have to really love it. When we try a new experiment we fail probably 10 times out of 11, so you have to be the kind of person who’s willing to fail and fail and fail and fail. And on the 11th day you get out of bed and you go in and you do the same experiment an 11th time, even though you just failed 10 times in a row, because that’s the time it’s going to work, right? So successful scientists are either crazy stupid—just doing the same thing over and over again until it works—or, if you want to put it in nicer terms, really optimistic and willing to persevere.

But, you know, lab work doesn’t really stay the same. Every person you recruit to the group brings their own ideas. The point is to have a collaborative endeavour where people come in with skills or ideas you don’t have. They learn something from you and they leave you with something you didn’t have before. So in the best possible world the research programme should evolve a lot over time.

When I started my lab, we didn’t do anything developmental—we were only looking at the mature cortex. Then I had this amazing postdoc come to my lab, who had a background in development, and she started a project that ultimately took us into cortical development. She’s started her own group now, but in the course of her postdoc she really changed the way my lab works, so now we have this entire research strain that’s all about cortical development.

Dr Jess Cardin
Dr Jess Cardin

I think it’s a really interesting time point to be a systems neuroscientist. The tools are amazing, it’s very freeing. You can basically sit back and say, ‘ok, I don’t want to worry about the techniques and the limitations. If we don’t have it already we’ll build it or buy it or make it or whatever. Let’s just think about the right question—any question—what’s the right question and what’s the best experiment to answer that question?’ Ten years ago we were not approaching our kind of science that way. So we have additional levels of interrogation of the brain now: the whole cortex and also genetically targeted populations with imaging and better high-density physiology. It’s pretty powerful in that respect.


Ready for more? Stay tuned for the launch of the SWC podcast, BrainTalk, where you’ll be able to hear our full interview with Jess and many more of our favourite neuroscientists.