Two neuroscientists at the University of Rochester who study vision to learn more about the brain have been awarded Alfred P. Sloan research fellowships.
David J. Calkins, assistant professor of ophthalmology at the Medical Center, and Alexandre Pouget, assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, are two of 104 scientists and economists nationwide who received the fellowships this year. Each will receive $40,000 for his research, along with the freedom to spend the funds on any project he chooses-flexibility designed to help young scientists in the early stages of their careers shape budding research programs. Both Calkins and Pouget are members of the University's Center for Visual Science, one of the foremost research groups in the world for the study of vision.
Calkins is interested in the molecules that shuttle information around the brain, how they work together to deliver information where it's needed, and how our genes make possible the amazing network of brain cells required. "Vision," Calkins notes, "involves 60 percent of the brain, along with thousands of different proteins encoded by thousands of different genes." He studies which genes and molecules are active under which circumstances, using electron microscopy to learn how they organize themselves. Calkins recently published a series of papers where he described the molecules involved in color vision, and now he is looking at the genes that create the visual system.
Calkins also manages the Medical Center's core facility in electron microscopy imaging. He uses the system, along with custom-built antibodies, to obtain some of the best images of brain tissue ever recorded, including images of single brain cells.
A native of Flint, Mich., Calkins earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan and his doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center. He joined the faculty in 1998, after doing post-doctoral research at Johns Hopkins University and the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany. He is also on the faculty of the departments of neurology, and neurobiology and anatomy. "The Center for Visual Science is the most prestigious center of vision research in the world," says Calkins. "I was drawn to the wonderful crowd here."
Across campus, Pouget is studying how the brain sorts out the raw electrical impulses of its cells into signals that other parts of the brain can use to piece together images and see the world. Just as computer scientists understand the insides of a computer, Pouget is part of a new breed of scientists known as "computational neuroscientists" who analyze the brain's circuitry and how it manages information. Pouget recently received a Young Investigator Award from the Office of Naval Research, providing him with $300,000 toward this research.
Pouget also works with patients who have a very specific form of brain damage known as "hemineglect," where the patient is unable to notice or pay attention to half of what they see. "Some patients won't dress half their body," says Pouget. "For others, if they notice only the right side and you ask them to draw a clock, they'll draw the numerals from one to six. Their eyes can see-they're not blind-but something in the brain tells them not to attend to half the visual field." If such a patient's condition is caused by a stroke in the right half of the brain, the patient might not "see" the left side of anything-a clock, the road, the television, his mirror image, his spouse, and so on.
Pouget earned his doctorate in biology from the University of California at San Diego, did additional research at the University of California at Los Angeles, and was on the faculty of Georgetown University for two years before coming to Rochester in 1999. He earned his undergraduate degree at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where he was honored as one of the top 20 biology students in France. He was inspired to pursue a career in neuroscience partly through stimulating conversations with his father about how the mind works during his teen-age years.