Ask Dr. Universe

How Do You Science Series | Meet a Neurobiologist

February 01, 2023 Washington State University Season 3 Episode 2
Ask Dr. Universe
How Do You Science Series | Meet a Neurobiologist
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome back, young scientists. I’m Dr. Universe.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve got lots of big questions about our world.

How do you become a scientist? What does a scientist's day look like? Is being a scientist fun?

In this episode, we meet Dr. Marcos Frank, a brain scientist at Washington State University. We learn about his path to becoming a scientist and how science works in real life.

As always, submit burning questions at  Who knows where your questions will take us next!

As always, submit burning questions at Who knows where your questions will take us next.

Dr. Universe: Welcome back, young scientists. I'm Dr. Universe. If you're anything like me, you've got lots of big questions about our world. 

I answer lots of science questions, but sometimes people wonder about science itself. Katelyn from Texas asked: 

Student: How does science work? How long do you have to train to become a scientist? 

Dr. Universe: In this new series, we're going to talk with all kinds of scientists about their work and the paths they took with science. Let's get started.

I met Marcos Frank when I was answering a question about how sleep works. He's a brain scientist at Washington State University. He's working to figure out a huge mystery: why the brain needs sleep. He's also really fun to talk to. 

Dr. Frank: So, what is it that makes you a scientist? Why is it that people wind up in science? I think for most folks that go as far in their careers as I have -- for example where one day you're running a laboratory, and this is your job to do science -- is that you have always been a curious person. 

You've always been fascinated by questions that have not been answered. And as you get older, you realize that there are many ways to try to understand how the world is and how it operates. But they're very few of those sorts of ways of understanding the world that require you to be really tough on yourself and really force yourself to do the hard work to understand what is true or not true about the natural world. You have the curiosity. And then you have this recognition that you want some discipline about how you go about satisfying your curiosity. 

And that certainly was me because it started from completely an unfocused place of just being a kid that loved to understand things about the world. You know, I'd love to go outside. I'd love to catch frogs. I loved to catch tadpoles. I was curious how they transformed into frogs. How did that happen? I was fascinated by the stars and the planets and what does it mean and are there other living things out there in the universe? And then for my own path that turned inward. Because of trying to understand how do we understand these things? 

Dr. Universe: I'm curious at what point you realized neuroscience was the field for you.

Dr. Frank: One of the things that I was fascinated about was how could it be that human beings have evolved to a point where they're looking back at where they came from. It's absolutely stunning that we can now look back in time with the telescopes that we have to see how stars are born and things that have happened billions of years ago. We're catching the shadows of those and echoes of those things because of our technology. But it wasn't that long ago when we had nothing like that. So where does that come from? What is it about us as animals that allow us to do that?

That has to do with our brains. So, for me, it was a natural extension of trying to understand that basic question of how is it that we are the universe looking back on itself -- at least in this little, tiny place on earth? How does that happen? And then that led to other real fundamental questions. 

Dr. Universe: So, you went to college, and studied biology maybe? 

Dr. Frank: So, when I went to college, I was a pre-med student, and I just wasn't feeling it to be a medical doctor. But I was still fascinated about the brain and things like that. So, there's a program called psychobiology. This is when I was at the University of California at Santa Cruz. It's basically a blending of psychology with neuroscience. And then I went to graduate school at Stanford and their neuroscience program. And it was amazing.

I never been around so many people that were so smart -- just so talented. My class was small. I think there was only six or seven in my class. And it was intimidating. It was, you know, but I remember there was one very illuminating day that I had where I had one of my friends on my left as a fellow grad student and then another fellow on my right, and he's another graduate student. We were taking this pretty difficult class on essentially how electrical currents are measured in neurons and the mathematics behind it. And the professor, he just said five minutes or something, and it was English, but I didn't understand a single word. 

I looked at my left -- and these guys were very smart next to me -- and I said, "Did you understand what he said?" And my friend was like, "No way." I looked at my right, and the other guy was really smart. I said, "Did you get that?" He said, "No, I have no idea what he's talking about." And I thought, "Okay, I'm fine!"

Dr. Universe: That's amazing.

Dr. Frank: I'm right where I need to be.

So, your path as a scientist is that you get your PhD or if you want to go further. And then the next step is you do essentially what's been traditionally kind of an apprenticeship, which is a postdoctoral fellowship. Not every science pathway has requirements for this, but in the biological sciences it's pretty much what you have to do if you want to go further. 

And my question was: what is sleep doing to the developing brain? So, I'd spent a lot of time as a PhD student studying what sleep looked like in baby animals. What does it tell us about what sleep might be doing? And then to do this postdoc was to go to a lab where that's all they studied was plasticity in the developing brain and how the developing brain is very sensitive during these critical periods of development to changes in the environment. And that causes all this rewiring of the brain. And they had all the tools to measure those things. So, my project was to say: Okay, what role does sleep play in this potentially? 

We found a very important role for sleep in this very classic type of plasticity that happens to the developing brain during critical periods. And that pretty much was my ticket to go on to my first academic position. I went to the University of Pennsylvania in their neuroscience program in their school of medicine as an assistant professor. 

So, I began my own lab at Penn and kept trying to answer these questions. And there have been additional questions that I've been interested in along the way. And sometime in 2013 I was approached by friends I knew here at Washington State University -- because they have a very good group of sleep biologists here. It just sort of works out that way, that different universities have particular strengths. And they made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I said, "Okay, I'm coming west!"

Dr. Universe: Amazing.

Dr. Frank: And now I'm here. 

 Dr. Universe: As a scientist, your day is probably very varied. Can you tell me the kinds of things that you do during your day?

 Dr. Frank: The day as a scientist begins with going back to the questions that you want to have answered and looking at the timelines and resources you have to answer those questions. Now, who do you have that's working on different projects. 

 So, if you're running a laboratory, in many ways it's like running a small business. You need to have the right people hired and the right people in the right place. They need to be trained. They can be students, or they can be staff -- usually it's a combination of both. So that's the first thing is to kind of evaluate where are we today with our goals to try to answer these questions. And that dictates what happens next. 

 And also how do you finance this to run a lab? You need to know how to find the resources to do the science that you want to do. There are many different sources of funding, but principally, most of us get our funding from the National Institutes of Health. So, there's the grant writing aspect, and it's a constant thing that you do as a professor. 

 Dr. Universe: So just to clarify, a grant is when you fill out an application and write some essays telling a funder like the government about the work that you want to do. And then hopefully, they agree to give you money to do that work. 

 Dr. Frank: Exactly. What you do in the grant is to say, "Here's a problem that we should care about. This problem hasn't been answered yet, and here's why. Here's how I'm going to ask the question, and here's exactly what I want to do to get there." Now, if you can hit those points, then you've probably written a successful application. 

 Dr. Universe: So then once you get the funding, you start doing the work. And then you spend a lot of time writing? 

 Dr. Frank: Once we have the funding, then we're ready to start the science. Now, in most cases, you're already doing that science anyway. But this supplements what you have to go further with the work. So maybe we buy more equipment that allows us to see something in the brain that we couldn't before or other tools that allow us to measure things about the brain. And you hire people. I mean, this is what pays salaries -- so you can pay for graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, technicians in the laboratory. You spend money to make money. Science is not that different. You have to make investments to keep building a program.

 Dr. Universe: What is your favorite part of your life as a scientist? 

 Dr. Frank: Hands down, it's when someone has something new to show me. When I go into work, I'm so thrilled and delighted when someone says, "I've got something to show you -- especially when it's completely what I did not expect. That, to me, is the best because nature is always smarter than you are. Nature has all the angles, and you maybe have one. So, to me, that's the most exciting thing short of actually crafting the design because that's a great pleasure, too.

 Dr. Universe: That's the discipline you were talking about. 

 Dr. Frank: That's the discipline. That's another pleasure about science. It's one thing to have great ideas, but to have the discipline and the craft -- how do you figure something out about nature in a way that someone hasn't before? That's a great challenge, but it's really fun. 

 Dr. Universe: And then someone can do again.

 Dr. Frank: Mm-hmm, they have to. And you have to give the recipe out. Once I have the recipe, I don't hide that. I give it to everyone. I publish it. So, you can follow my recipe. And hopefully, you come up with the same delicious thing at the end. That's something that I think makes science kind of unique in how we try to understand the world. It's not supposed to be secretive. It's supposed to be shared.

 Dr. Universe: Can you think of something about your life as a scientist that would surprise people? 

 Dr. Frank: I think sometimes people think that scientists are not very social people or they're kind of like withdrawn and they're introverted. Some of the funniest, most outgoing people I've ever met are scientists. Because again, remember that science is ultimately about sharing things, about interacting with people, about getting ideas out and having it live in the sort of environment where ideas are being challenged and tested and remade. You can't do that if you're not the kind of person that likes hearing that back and forth. I think that sometimes we have a stereotype of the scientist as being someone that doesn't like those things, but that is not true. 

 Dr. Universe: And you have conferences, which are like sleepaway camp.

 Dr. Frank: We definitely like to party. It takes a long time to get to where you are when you're actually running a laboratory. We're talking about almost 20 years, if you think about all the education and training and so forth. That means that you are making friends and friendships that go back for 20 years and then some -- and that's quite special. That's someone that knows the path that you've been on -- and not just as a scientist, but just as a human being. 

 I'm very grateful that I have friends that go back to graduate school. When I got to Penn, my roommate at Stanford -- we were graduate students together and good friends -- he got hired 6 months before I did, and his lab was right next door to mine. So, it's like rooming again. And it's infectious because everybody knows that we like each other. And it's kind of funny that these guys are back together again. But that happens in science. That's something that I think most people don't realize is that aspect of doing this is: science is a social experience. 

 Dr. Universe: So, my last question is if you have a piece of advice for a kid who's like 8 or 13 and wants to be where you are someday.

 Dr. Frank: I'd say the first thing is remember why you like to be curious. All children are. They're all curious. They're all full of questions. And so, make sure that you remember that part because it's a difficult path with a lot of challenges to get from the beginning to the end. And what gets you there is that you never stopped being curious, that you really want to know something, and then start to take pride in your craft. 

What brings you towards the point you want to be, if that's what you want to do, is you don't let go of that thing that you had when you're a small, when you're young. That curiosity. Because you're going to go back to it again and again. And it's going to reward you again and again. Because the more that you learn about nature, the better your questions get. And the more interesting and exciting the possible answers could be. That's what I'd say. 

 Dr. Universe: That's amazing. Thank you so much for talking to me. It was such a pleasure. 

 Dr. Frank: Yeah, it was fun. 

Dr. Universe: That's all for this episode, friends. Big thanks to Marcos Frank for giving us a window into science. As always, if you've got a science question tickling your brain, you can submit it at That's A S K D R U N I V E R S E at WSU dot EDU. 

Who knows where your questions will take us next.