From the scientist’s view: a conversation with … Marta Zlatic
Marta Zlatic is a Group Leader and MRC Investigator in the Neurobiology Division at the LMB.
She studied Natural Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, followed by a Masters in Chemistry. She then completed her PhD in Developmental Neuroscience at the Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, with Professor Michael Bate. In October 2009, she started her own lab at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Janelia Research Campus, USA. She was appointed a Reader in Systems and Circuits Neuroscience in the University of Cambridge in 2017 and moved her research lab to the LMB in December 2019. In 2017 she was awarded the biennial FENS/Hertie Foundation Erick Kandel Young Neuroscientist prize. In 2020, she was elected to EMBO membership and awarded the Royal Society Francis Crick Medal and Lecture.
Marta’s lab is aiming to understand the relationship between the structure of the nervous system and its function, and to discover the basic principles by which neural circuits implement fundamental computations. Their focus is on the circuit basis of learning, predicting and decision making in the brain, using the Drosophilalarvae as a model system.
Marta recently talked to us about her work and career in science.
What inspired you to choose this particular area of science/research?
I was always fascinated by animal behaviour. Ever since I was a little child I really wanted to be a biologist and study how the brain generates behaviour. Initially, I was also very interested in languages and linguistics and very complex human brain functions. So, during my undergraduate degree, I also read linguistics and Russian in parallel. For a while I thought I would study neuropsycholinguistics and the basis of very complex human behaviours. But then I realised that, really, I would like to understand how brains generate behaviour, how they learn at the very cellular, molecular level. I decided to pursue a PhD in Drosophila as a model system, to try and understand how this complex organ develops – that is the basis for how it functions afterwards. I still think we don’t understand even the basic simple behaviours and I got so fascinated by the mysteries of a much simpler brain than a human brain, and I’m still studying it.
What is the coolest thing about your work/research?
One of the most exciting things to me is that we are starting to be able to combine the analysis of circuits at synaptic level, with analysis of functional activity in identified circuits and then behaviour. So, we are really starting to get a comprehensive picture of how the brain works at multiple scales. One of the cool discoveries is the mechanisms by which brains integrate information from different sensory modalities to enhance action selection and then the circuit mechanisms by which learning is controlled and used by the brain to select actions.
What scientific breakthrough would you most like to make?
The scientific breakthrough I would most like to make is to really understand how the brain learns, and then how it uses the learnt information to make decisions. How can this relatively tiny organ be so powerful computationally? How can it be so flexible in the huge diversity of learning tasks? How can it store memories? How can it then rapidly use them in a context dependent manner? So, how can we make sense of the incredibly complex circuit architecture, how can we understand the roles of the diverse set of circuit motifs, how can understand this entire organ works together to generate complex, cognitive functions?
Who has been the biggest influence on your scientific career?
My PhD advisor, Professor Michael Bate, who really taught me to just go for the big question and to look at the data, with a prepared mind. To be ready to just initially look, in an unbiased way, and then come up with hypotheses. He instilled a feeling of completely curiosity driven research, where everything seems possible.
Do you have a scientific hero? How has their work influenced you or made your research possible?
Collaborators who enabled the kind of research that we do – everything that we do would not have been possible without the development of amazing genetic tools in Drosophila. Especially the amazing genetic library by Gerry Rubin, that opened doors to the kind of research that we are doing. And then incredible advances in electron microscopy, without which this rapid correlation of structural function would be impossible. These are the things that really enabled my research as it is. And also, collaborations with Albert Cardona were absolutely key, who is also my husband.
What is special about working at the LMB? What drew you to want to come to LMB?
In fact, what I love about it is that it is actually similar to where I worked before, because where I worked before was modelled after the LMB. I was at Janelia Research Campus and they have similar visions, namely small research groups, very collaborative, focusing on big ideas, long term projects and high risk projects. So, I started my lab in such an environment and I could not imagine moving anywhere else. So, it was my dream place to work.
Has your scientific career been different from what you imagined? If so, how?
Well I must say, I never imagined my scientific career. I mostly think of the present. I was usually guided by what I found most interesting at the moment. The way I chose places – I just wanted to address specific questions and I went to wherever would let me do what I wanted to do. So it’s been exactly as I wished for. I was always so lucky to be able to focus on the research I love and to do what I find incredibly interesting, so I was able to follow my passion and curiosity. But I never imagined myself in a particular place or country, I didn’t know where I would end up. I love it where I’ve ended up – the LMB is a dream place, but I never imagined myself anywhere except somewhere where I can do what I love.
If you could do anything again, what would it be and what would you do differently?
If I could do anything again, I would not change anything. I enjoyed every step of it. At this point I don’t think I would have done anything differently. You should ask me that in 20 years!
How has your work been impacted by COVID in 2020? Have there been any positive outcomes because of changes you had to make this year?
Our work has been quite badly impacted by COVID and there have been no positive outcomes. But we have, surprisingly, managed to still continue and be productive – thanks to modern technology and the enormous effort from the LMB. Obviously, for me, the biggest impact was lack of childcare during the lockdown. And then a lot of catching up to do because of that.
What do you think makes a good scientist?
I think what makes a good scientist is curiosity, passion, rigour and very methodical, critical thinking. But also, imagination. An ability to imagine completely new questions and imagine completely new answers to existing questions. To be very open to the data that one sees.
What key piece of advice would you like to pass on to future scientists?
A key advice I would give to young people is to do what they love, not to worry about the future but about the question they’re addressing. Not to care what others think of them, to follow their nose and their intuition and be brave.
What do you think will be the most significant scientific breakthrough in the next 5-10 years?
I think a major breakthrough will be to understand the architectures of the brain and how brains work. That will be one of the major breakthroughs.
Marta was interviewed for the LMB Alumni Newsletter on 16th December 2020.