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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Julija Krupic

16 Mar, 2015

JK portrait pictureDr Julija Krupic developed a fascination with the way the brain maps the environment during her MRes. Since then she’s not looked back – securing a PhD with Prof John O’Keefe and a Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship – she works at University College London, trying to discern the function of neurons in the hippocampus, with the hope that this may one day help us find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. We asked her to tell us about her life in the lab, and what drives her research…

What are you working on?

I am studying the function of neurons in the hippocampal formation, a part of the brain’s limbic system. The hippocampal formation is crucial for spatial navigation, learning and memory. Damage to it results in impairments in spatial memory and various types of neurological and psychiatric disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia) as well as memory and learning problems associated with ageing.

There are four main classes of spatially tuned cells in the hippocampal formation: place cells – activated when the animal enters a specific area of the environment, grid cells – active in multiple places covering the entire environment and arranged in a symmetrical hexagonal pattern, head direction cells – active whenever the animal is facing a particular direction independent of the animal’s position, and finally, border cells – which fire whenever the animal is close to the borders of the environment.

cover with kandinsky for wellcomeUp till now my main focus has been on grid cells. I am interested in how grid cells acquire their hexagonal symmetry and how this symmetry is influenced by the environment’s geometry. Answering this question would lead us to understand the mechanism by which simple sensory information is converted into the perception of complex space.

What does your average day involve?

I am lucky to live close enough to UCL so that usually I walk to work in the morning. This gives me the opportunity to think about my current experiments, the best way to analyse the results and to generally plan my day.

A large part of my day is spent doing experiments or preparing for them (building various experimental setups and other bits and bobs, I love the tool development part of science – an endless playground!). My training as a physicist enables me to take part in the development of some of the new exciting tools in neuroscience. In addition to electrical recording as a way of studying neural activity we are now using lasers to record optically from hundreds of cells at the same time (as animals navigate in virtual environments.) We can begin to look at the way in which cells talk to each other and how networks of cells generate representations.

When I have collected enough data to answer the important questions I spend quite a bit of time looking at it, thinking about controls, alternative explanations. Occasionally during lunchtime I have interesting and often heated discussions with colleagues on various topics – I like that part of the academic scientific life quite a bit as well.

Why is your work important?

Understanding the brain is one of the most important scientific quests. After all, who we are and the way we think are mostly because of our memories and the interaction of different parts of the brain. I think the hippocampal formation is an especially interesting part of the brain in this respect. We know enough about it to begin to ask really important questions about mechanisms, i.e. how the structure handles all the mathematical operations it performs to form a cognitive representation of space.

Although I’m driven in my day-to-day research by curiosity, I hope that in the longer run our understanding of hippocampal memory mechanisms will provide the basis for attempts to cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

I am hoping/dreaming that one day I’ll come up with a theory of hippocampal function. Another big goal is to be able to use this knowledge to implant memories in the brain.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

During my MRes course in Bioimaging science at Imperial College, I went to a general neuroscience lecture where Kit Longden (a post-doc in our lab) was talking about the brain. He said that there are maps of the environment in our brain. I thought that this was the coolest thing I ever heard! So I contacted Prof John O’Keefe at UCL and asked if I could work with him. Luckily he accepted me to do a PhD. It was great to get into grid cell recording at the ground floor at a time when we still know very little about how they function.

lab2

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

It is probably the answer you hear the most but I am glad I have an opportunity to spell it out as well: A LOT! I received my Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship straight after my PhD, which was great since I got the chance to formulate an idea, a project, and work on it with any lab I chose. And I got to work on it in several world-class labs. Wellcome basically told me: we like your project (high risk, high gain!), here are the resources, go and solve the problem.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“When are you going to cure Alzheimer’s disease?”

As I said above, I’m primarily a basic researcher interested in blue-sky questions but recently I have taken up the opportunity to get involved in a high-powered consortium effort aimed at understanding and hopefully contribute to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

“When are you going to cure Alzheimer’s disease?”

Because I cannot answer it! My grandma has Alzheimer’s disease. It is very devastating. I wish we could advance our understanding quicker. Hopefully we will have some success with this new initiative and after some time I will have a new “dread” question.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I have competed in a national Eurovision song contest. We lost, so I decided to pursue science instead.

What keeps you awake at night?

My cat. I usually sleep quite well when I have the chance.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

‘Do the experiment!’  – John O’Keefe

Meaning: do not be afraid to be wrong both in your assumptions about how things work and sometimes wasting your time on what might at the beginning seem like ‘a very dumb idea’.

The chain reaction question – posed by previous spotlit researcher, Dr Arun Shukla, is this: Do you still work on the bench? If not, how badly do you miss it?

Yes, I am spending quite a bit of time doing experiments or preparing for them. I hope it will never change. I think that’s what being a scientist is largely about (at least if you’re an experimentalist) – making hypotheses and testing them. I think it does not matter how good one is in planning and generating ideas, there are always surprises awaiting you in a lab.

 

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