Dr. Ines Ribeiro is a postdoctoral researcher working on the neural basis of courtship behavior in Drosophila melanogaster, at the Max Planck Institute Neurobiology, Germany.
What is a typical day in your career?
I like to think that there are no typical days in my career. Being a researcher means you are always after the next finding that propels you to a new question, which leads you to set up the experiment that will reveal the next finding. That shows one of the typical cycles in my work. The most consistent task I do throughout the year is to sort flies under the microscope to generate and combine different transgenic lines, which is the biggest strength of Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism.
How did you discover your interest in the brain, and when was that?
I was always fascinated by the nervous system and the inner workings of the brain, but I was not attracted to the research in rats that was going on in the neuroscience labs at my university. So, I focused on genetics, cell and developmental biology at the beginning of my studies. My passion for understanding how cells work drove me to study more and more complex cells that are highly structured and perform revolutionizing tasks in the realm of all living things: muscles and neurons. Muscles are the receiving end of impulse signals relayed by motoneurons, which in turn summarize incredibly complex decision-making or network-signaling that goes on in the brain. In fact, very little is understood about what happens in the brain (in any brain I should say — human, mouse, insect or fish). Plus, the output of the brain is behavior, that can be incredibly simple or complex, but is always fascinating.
What were some of your happy times and memories in neuroscience and/or psychology?
Some of the happiest times I have in my career are when I get to teach or mentor students or technicians. I really enjoy the teaching I do, as well as to see people progress. I also enjoy attending international meetings not only because I get to see my colleagues and peers, but also because I get to hear about a lot of amazing science in seminars and poster sessions.
In research, most experiments and results bring incremental knowledge to the biological question you are trying to answer. But there are a few moments when you have a result that leaps you forward and lets you make a strong concluding statement or set an entirely new working hypothesis. Those moments are my happiest times in research.
What are your biggest achievements, and what are your biggest failures?
I’m not sure if I had a big achievement yet, but I’ve had small achievements along the way. My work with Prof. Amy Kiger (UCSD) in fly muscle revealed how the pathological symptoms of a devastating human disease, the centronuclear myopathy, develop in muscle cells or myocytes. We knew how myocytes looked like in human patients—small, disorganized and weak—and so when we got the same characteristics in fly myocytes upon knocking down the disease culprit, the myotubularin gene, we thought we could dig further. We found that several transmembrane proteins are mis-trafficked in muscle cells without myotubularin, and that this caused the muscle cells to detach from their attachment sites, making them, among other things, weak. These findings were corroborated by acclaimed researchers in other animal models of the disease and in human patients too. Additionally, our paper was highlighted by F1000 prime.
I switched fields to work in Drosophila courtship behavior because I wanted a system that would allow me to link genes with cells and functionality in behavior. My work with Dr. Dickson (Janelia) and Dr. Borst (Max Planck) uncovered how visual cues are used in the brain during male courtship behavior, and I received the Max Planck Institute Neurobiology Young Scientist Award for this work.
My biggest failure is not having planned and managed my career properly. Of the many other failures, the most nagging one is related to biosensors and getting the balance between sensing a protein/phospholipid/ion in the cell and titrating it right. Titration depletes the protein/phospholipid/ion you want to monitor, and it can affect what you see in the cell. While my efforts at establishing biosensors have mostly failed, there are many other researchers that have established reliable biosensors which I use extensively.
If you could change one thing about your journey with the brain, what would it be?
I would plan my career from the start. But of course, I was so undecided (and young) that it would not have been a good plan anyway.
Why is neuroscience and/or psychology outreach or STEM outreach in general important to you?
When I try to explain what I do to people that do not work in science, I‘m asked frequently if my work is aimed at controlling pests. The basic research on flies can of course help controlling pests, but the usefulness of the knowledge basic research generates is not so limited to that. I think we as scientists need to get better at explaining how basic research impacts our daily lives. Another reason why outreach is so important, is to tell young people and kids from under-represented backgrounds that this is a viable career and that we need them and their inputs in STEM.
Is there a scientific topic outside of the brain that you find very fascinating?
There are many scientific topics outside of the brain that I find fascinating. Some of them are topics related to the brain and are incorporated in my research, such as membrane trafficking (which occurs in every living cell, not only neurons), optogenetics (use of light-sensitive proteins to control cellular events) and muscle biology (muscles are the end receivers of brain decisions), and some are not. I find plant biology fascinating, how plants developed light-sensing proteins to control their growth and find their favorite light intensities or spectra. I also like dinosaurs, and paleontology in general. Last summer I read the book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte. My family and I have been to every exposition and excavation site in the south of Germany and Portugal we could find.
What lessons or values have neuroscience and/or psychology taught you?
One thing that research in neuroscience has taught me, is that there is structure in complex behavior, even if at first glance a particular behavior seems too variable to fully understand it.
Please note that this interview was conducted in 2019. We have recently reformatted and made minor clarity edits to publish on the Simply Neuroscience Blog!