The benefits of new brain cells: an interview with Antonia Marín-Burgin

Antonia Marín-Burgin is a Group Leader at the IBioBA-CONICET-MPSP Institute in Buenos Aires. Her research focuses on understanding how the neurons in the hippocampus – an area of the brain associated with navigation and memory formation – interact to form microcircuits.
Antonia Marín-Burgin
Antonia Marín-Burgin. Image credit: Andres Pisciottano.

What attracted you to studying neuroscience?

When I was an undergraduate studying biology, one of our professors took advantage of an international meeting that was taking place in Buenos Aires and invited some amazing speakers to the university to give a series of seminars on neuroscience. I remember a talk by Mu-Ming Poo very well. I was so fascinated by the questions and research he and others were presenting that I decided to become a neuroscientist.

How do you describe your research to your friends and family?

Most of the neurons in our brain are already there when we are born. However, new neurons are being added to the hippocampus – a brain area dedicated to the formation of memory – throughout life. This raises many questions. What is the role of these “immature” adult-born neurons? How do they connect to the networks of neurons that are already there? What are the differences between immature adult-born neurons and mature neurons? To approach these questions, we use genetic tools to fluorescently label adult-born neurons in the brain of mice and study their activity.

What was the main finding in your recent eLife paper?

We found that immature adult-born neurons in part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus process information in a different way to mature neurons (Pardi et al., 2015). Neurons in the brain communicate by triggering electrical signals known as action potentials. We found that immature neurons reliably transmit information at a broad range of frequencies but have sloppy timing, whereas mature neurons are worse at transmitting frequency information, but have better timing. This suggests that information arriving to the hippocampus from other brain areas could be channelled into activating immature or mature neurons depending on the stimulus frequency. We think that is very interesting for understanding how frequency and timing can be decoded in other brain areas by populations of neurons with different properties.

What are you working on at the moment?

The hippocampus, like most parts of the brain, contains both excitatory neurons and inhibitory neurons. We are investigating the balance between excitation and inhibition in the hippocampus, and how this changes in the presence of neuromodulators like serotonin or acetylcholine (which alter how neurons transmit action potentials). This will help us to understand how the same circuit can produce very different patterns of activity. Recently, I have also become interested in how sensory processing can be influenced by experience, and part of the lab is starting to focus on the processing of sensory stimuli like odours.

Who has most influenced your career so far?

I have to start with my father; he was a sociologist who was constantly pushing his field to understand reality by doing research. Even though it was in a completely different topic, that was my first experience of the passion that goes along with investigating something that you are interested in. Then my mentors, Lidia Szczupak (my PhD advisor), Bill Kristan and Massimo Scanziani (my postdoc advisors) and the whole very rich intellectual atmosphere that I experienced in my years as a postdoc at UCSD. Then when I came back to Argentina after several years abroad, Alejandro Schinder received me and helped me to develop my career here. Last but not least my husband, my colleagues, my students and postdocs inspire me every day with fun discussions about science and other interesting not-so-scientific topics.

What single change would most improve the way that science is done today?

To spend less time writing grants and trying to publish papers. I became a scientist because I love to investigate, but as time passes, I spend less time every day doing experiments or even getting close to the bench. To me, this is really sad. We spend too many hours trying to get money and evaluating whether others should get money. We need to do something about it.

What changes would most improve the professional lives of early career scientists?

To have strong financial support. To have opportunities to present your work at meetings, at an early career symposium for example.

What did you find most challenging when first starting your own independent lab?

You feel lonely or parentless at the beginning, with many things to solve; from writing grants, to choosing which plastic tube you should buy, or hiring people. It is very challenging but also exciting.

And what do you find most enjoyable about having your own research group?

Interacting with and mentoring postdocs and graduate students. I really enjoy analysing data with them, brainstorming or discussing results.

What is Argentina like for science?

In the last 10 years the science in Argentina has improved substantially. The government created a ministry of science and has invested money to increase the number of available positions and grants and to build new institutes (like the one I am working now) and to increase the number of grants. They also made a big effort to bring people back from abroad; in fact I came back with that support. However, we still are far from ideal. Another important difference to the US and Europe is the number of colleagues who you can discuss your results with, since the scientific community here is small. That will hopefully change if the support for science continues and increases. In the meantime, we have to travel actively to keep contact in with colleagues from outside our country. We also have to organise scientific meetings here to bring in good scientists that inspire our students.

What are your main interests outside science?

Besides being a mom! I very much enjoy education, how to teach science to young kids for example. It is something that I’ve always liked but do not have the time to do… maybe in the future.

Do you find it difficult getting the work-life balance right?

Yes! I always feel a little guilty for not spending enough time with my kids. But I share child care with my husband, he also has a lab… we manage.

Is your partner also a biologist?

Yes, his lab is at the University of Buenos Aires, where he works on how the environment affects the physiology of insects. We met when we were studying biology at the University of Buenos Aires.

Where would you like to be ten years from now?

I think with my lab being a bit bigger, but not too big. Expanding the topics of my research to include more in vivo studies. Plan B could be having a restaurant on a Brazilian beach.

What would we be surprised to learn about you?

I have already worked with flies, leeches and mice... but I guess I’m not the only one.

Antonia Marín-Burgin CV

  • 2013–Present: Group Leader (PI) at IBioBA-CONICET Partner Institute of the Max Planck Society, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • 2009–2012: Investigator at the Leloir Institute, Buenos Aires.
  • 2006–2009: Postdoctoral Fellow/Research Associate, University of California, San Diego (UCSD), USA.
  • 2002–2005: Postdoctoral Fellow, UCSD.
  • 1996–2001: PhD, University of Buenos Aires.