Researcher Spotlights

Previous researcher spotlights are featured here.

CAN Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Artur Luczak

For Dr. Artur Luczak, being a neuroscientist means charting new territory. “It’s like being one of the pioneers discovering western North America and going where nobody has ever gone before…we still don’t know so many things.”

arturluczakmainFor Dr. Artur Luczak, being a neuroscientist means charting new territory. “It’s like being one of the pioneers discovering western North America and going where nobody has ever gone before…we still don’t know so many things.” Dr. Luczak embodies this sense of pioneering with his research on neuronal activity.

Dr. Luczak’s lab uses multi-site silicon microelectrodes to simultaneously record activity in the cortex and subcortical structures to help understand information processing and memory formation in the brain. They investigate how neurological disorders like epilepsy distort the relationship between neuronal populations. He has also showed how neuronal activity in the cortex is composed of stereotypical sequential patterns, which he calls “neuronal packets”.

Dr. Luczak heads the Neuronal Data Analytics Lab and is an Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge. At the moment, however, he is currently a Visiting Associate Professor while on a one-year sabbatical at Stanford University. He is also one of five instructors for the Introductory Workshop on Computational Methods in Neuroscience, held last June at the University of Lethbridge. The annual workshop is made possible through a partnership between Campus Alberta Neuroscience and the University of Lethbridge’s NSERC CREATE Biological Information Processing Program. He was also involved with planning CAN’s fourth annual symposium in 2015. “It was a great success to bring scientists from all universities across the province to better know each other. I think Campus Alberta Neuroscience is doing a great job to make Alberta neuroscience more than just the sum of its parts.”

An early interest in science set Dr. Luczak on the path he is on today. “Since kindergarten I was interested in why trees grow, how our bodies work… and now I consider myself very lucky to get paid for spending entire days thinking about how our brains function.” His efforts have not gone unnoticed. Dr. Luczak was recently elected to the Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, which is the first national system of multidisciplinary recognition for emergent intellectual leadership. Membership is made up of Canadians and permanent residents who have demonstrated a high level of achievement at an early stage in their career.

Considering this wealth of experience, what advice does Dr. Luczak offer to aspiring researchers? Keep trying. “One thing I’ve learned from doing science is that it’s hard. Most ideas are wrong and many experiments go nowhere.” But the key, he says, is to be persistent and not become discouraged by failure. “Only people who don’t try avoid failure. In science we are trying to find answers to questions nobody has answers to. Most of our approaches fail but it’s very satisfying when we get things right.”

Dr. Luczak says that Alberta’s neuroscience research field seems to be one of the strongest in Canada, but neuroscience in general has a lot of growing to do. “We gather a lot of different observations in neuroscience, but we still don’t have a unified theory of how the brain works.” But he is hopeful. “Before, people understood movement of planets it was necessary first to collect hundreds of thousands of observations. Those observations led to the idea that the orbits of planets around the sun are elliptic, which became crucial for coming up with the laws of planetary motion. Similarly in neuroscience, we are now collecting a lot of information on how the brain works but we still don’t have a general rule explaining how those pieces work together. I hope to see us achieve that in my lifetime.”

CAN Researcher Spotlight: Dr. David Euston

Dr. David Euston’s interest in science was sparked at a young age. “I was always interested in the deepest mysteries, like what’s the nature of the universe?” He went on to complete an undergraduate degree in physics and, along the way, discovered another great mystery: the mind.

david-euston-4Dr. David Euston’s interest in science was sparked at a young age. “I was always interested in the deepest mysteries, like what’s the nature of the universe?” He went on to complete an undergraduate degree in physics and, along the way, discovered another great mystery: the mind. He began taking psychology courses and eventually, as he says, “drifted” into neuroscience, “because [he] wanted to get at the what makes the mind work and that, of course, leads you to the brain.”

Dr. Euston received his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Oregon in 2000. His research, under the direction of Terry Takahashi, investigated the computation of sound source location in barn owls. His postdoctoral work investigated multi-electrode recordings from the hippocampus and frontal cortex in the lab of Bruce McNaughton at the University of Arizona from 2000-2007. In 2008, he joined the University of Lethbridge and is now an Associate Professor at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN). “The faculty at the CCBN are at the forefront of behavioural neuroscience. It is a privilege to work among such talented colleagues.”

Dr. Euston’s current research uses rodent models to understand functions of the prefrontal cortex. One of his projects focuses on the frontal cortex’s role in vocalization and developing what he refers to as a “dictionary of rat language” to correlate calls with certain behaviours. His team is investigating if contextually appropriate behaviour is indeed governed by the frontal cortex. “We’ve been correlating the calls with specific behaviours. It’s been a lot of fun. Who knew that when an animal is jumping they’re giving a particular type of call and when they approach another animal they gave a different type of call?” His lab recently discovered how these calls are tied to specific actions, something that has never been shown before.

Dr. Euston is also working on building a model of gambling in the rat to understand behavioural addiction. The challenge, he says, is to build a viable model. “It’s a really tricky thing to capture aspects of human gambling addiction in an animal model.” Dr. Euston and his team think that “surprise” is a key aspect of gambling addiction. When someone wins money at a video lotto terminal (VLT), the surprise kicks the reward system into overdrive, and “that might be the crux of what makes gambling so sticky”.

Dr. Euston is also one of the five instructors of the Introductory Workshop on Computational Methods in Neuroscience, which took place for the third time this past summer at the University of Lethbridge. “It’s a great way to facilitate communication across Alberta. I’ve definitely made a lot of contacts with faculty in the other schools that I would never been able to get to know…that’s been a really neat experience.” The annual workshop is made possible through a partnership between Campus Alberta Neuroscience and the University of Lethbridge’s NSERC CREATE Biological Information Processing Program.

When asked what advice he would give to aspiring researchers, Dr. Euston chuckles and says, “Well, learn a lot of math.” He stresses the importance of quantitative and technical skills like programming, statistics, genetic engineering, etc. “Neuroscience draws on many other fields of science, so a strong background in these subfields is tremendously important. Ultimately, to make progress you end up collaborating with people with different areas of expertise, but the more you can learn about each area, the stronger you’ll be.”

Discovering this field’s complexity is one of the biggest lessons learned, Dr. Euston says, during his academic journey. “When you come into the field, you think that the answers are just around the corner. But the more you get into it the more you realize that it’s a huge, huge thing, and it’s going to be years before we ever understand how the mind works. It’s really humbling.” But he is not paralyzed by this uncertainty. In fact, this thirst for discovery is what drives Dr. Euston to continue his work. “Every time you turn a new scientific corner and you see some new finding it’s so exciting, whether it’s in your own lab or whether you’re reading something in Science or Nature, you think ‘oh my gosh, that is so cool.’”

Neuroscience is a budding field, Dr. Euston says with great optimism, and research on the frontal cortex is even younger. “We are still kind of groping in the dark. We don’t really have a clear picture of exactly what’s going on in the frontal cortex at a computational level. What are the inputs of the frontal cortex, what are the outputs? We don’t know, but I would really love to find out.”

CAN Researcher Spotlight: Dr. William Colmers

Dr. William Colmers has been at the University of Alberta since 1988. He is a Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience, as well as a distinguished Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Medical scientist.

william-colmersDr. William Colmers has been at the University of Alberta since 1988. He is a Professor of Pharmacology and Neuroscience, as well as a distinguished Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research Medical scientist. In addition to his teaching and research, Dr. Colmers also chairs Campus Alberta Neuroscience’s (CAN) Program Review Committee.

Through his lab, Dr. Colmers has spent the last 30 years studying neuropeptides and the role they play in energy balance, obesity, and the wasting syndrome called cachexia. Neuropeptides, which act as signaling molecules in the brain, enable neurons to communicate complex information with each other. “Neuropeptide Y, for example, has the ability to work as an antiepileptic in one part of the brain, while regulating appetite in another,” Dr. Colmers explains.

Dr. Colmers’ work with neuropeptides has helped shed new light on cachexia, a condition that makes weight gain impossible — and catastrophic weight loss inevitable — for people suffering from cancers, emphysema, chronic heart disease and a variety of other chronic illnesses.

“For a long time, nobody actually thought it involved the brain,” Dr. Colmers points out. “About 99% of the studies conducted on it are related to muscle and fat metabolism, and although they are part of it, we have really good evidence that the central nervous system controls most of the processes.”

While Dr. Colmers’s lab continues its work into understanding cachexia and identifying disruptions in brain functions related to energy balance, it has also expanded its research to include anxiety. For the last six years, he has collaborated with colleagues at Chicago Medical School to understand the role Neuropeptide Y plays in reducing and regulating anxiety.

Through their collaboration, Dr. Colmers hopes to develop new treatments for anxiety-related conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. “We’ve made some very exciting progress,” he says. “This is the first time anybody has seen a treatment for anxiety-related disorders that’s had prolonged and profound actions.”

As chair of the CAN Program Review Committee, Dr. Colmers plays a key role in assessing grants and fellowships awarded to academics and young scientists across Alberta. “Our duty is to make sure science is done well and to encourage good science through these important programs,” he says of the various educational initiatives and funding support programs CAN offers. From the Trainee Mobility Program to the newly launched Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, CAN continues to foster unique and important partnerships throughout Alberta.

“There’s a lot of talent in Edmonton, Lethbridge and Calgary independently, but we’re all stronger when we collaborate.”

CAN Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Gerlinde Metz

Looking across generations and throughout lifespans to understand the origins of disease — identifying health risks earlier to make a difference later in life.

Dr. Gerlinde Metz is a Professor at the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience (CCBN) at the University of Lethbridge where she was recently named the Board of Governors Research Chair for Healthy Futures. In addition to her work at CCBN, she also serves on Campus Alberta Neuroscience committees where she plays an integral role consulting on events and education initiatives across the province, and is a member of CAN’s Nervous System Injury Research Theme Group.

Her research focuses on what Metz calls a transgenerational stress model where she is investigating the origins of disease. “It’s pretty unique,” she says. “We study how diseases are being programmed from one generation to the next, which is something you hear in the news nowadays, but didn’t when we started our research 10 years ago.”

Through her animal model using rats, Metz and her team are looking at how the environment and lifetime experiences affect the risk of pre-term birth, anxiety, depression, cancers and other diseases across multiple generations. “We look across generations, and also across the entire lifespan,” Metz says. “We want to see how the good and the bad experiences of a mother can influence behaviour, brain development and chances of healthy aging in her offspring and future generations.

“Excessive stress can leave a physiological, epigenetic and genetic ‘footprint’ that can be passed down through multiple generations. If we develop an ability to read these footprints we’ll have a new tool that identifies who is at greater risk of stress-related diseases.”

Metz plans to advance the study from observing these generational changes to actively identifying the precise mechanisms that cause disease. “We want to identify causes and new predictive markers of disease so that, for example, you could take a drop of blood from a baby at birth and be able to predict the kind of health risks he or she may be prone to later in life. Then interventions can be applied early to reduce the risk.”

Through CAN’s Nervous System Injury Research Theme Group, Metz is part of a province-wide network of researchers working on spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, new rehabilitation techniques and nervous system regeneration. “Alberta is really fortunate for having these kind of networks as they bring the Universities of Lethbridge, Calgary and Alberta closer together and enhance the opportunities for student learning and multidisciplinary collaboration.”

Metz is looking forward to pursuing future collaborations with other researchers in the group. “These days, more than ever, we need to work in teams. We have more-complex projects, but also most funding opportunities seek a team-based approach. It’s good to have a collaboration that’s already ongoing and productive so we can jump on these opportunities. Campus Alberta Neuroscience has recognized the need to support team formation and its programs come at a very important time for Alberta’s research community.”

CAN Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Chantel Debert

Dr. Chantel Debert is an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary in the department of Clinical Neurosciences. As part of Campus Alberta Neuroscience’s Nervous System Injury Research Theme Group, Debert is part of a province-wide network of researchers whose works focuses on spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury, rehabilitation, and nervous system regeneration.

Starting Dialogues with Campuses Across Alberta Leads to Opportunities for Collaboration.

Dr. Chantel Debert is an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary in the department of Clinical Neurosciences. As part of Campus Alberta Neuroscience’s Nervous System Injury Research Theme Group, Debert is part of a province-wide network of researchers whose works focuses on spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury, rehabilitation, and nervous system regeneration. She is a physician lead for the Calgary Brain Injury Program where she’s responsible for developing and implementing research strategies.

Recently, Debert was named co-lead of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute’s (HBI) Brain Injury NeuroTeam. “Our role is to organize individuals interested in brain injury campus-wide, and bring them together to start discussions about research, grant opportunities, and fostering relationships between individuals who are interested in brain injury,” she says.

Through the HBI, Debert has recently secured a pilot grant to further her research into sport concussions and mild traumatic brain injury. “We will analyze clinically accessible bio-fluids to develop a quantitative metabolic profiling to aid in diagnosing and prognosticating outcomes in patients who suffered a sport concussion / mild traumatic brain injury. “

One of the researchers joining Debert in her study is Dr. Gerlinde Metz from the University of Lethbridge, a colleague she had not seen since working on an undergraduate project nearly 20 years ago. It was while speaking at Campus Alberta Neuroscience’s 2014 Symposium that Debert and Metz reconnected and quickly saw an opportunity to work together. “Gerlinde is a basic scientist and I’m a clinician, she has access to different resources and a complimentary knowledge base, it was a natural fit.”

“Through Campus Alberta Neuroscience I’ve fostered relationships with individuals at the University of Lethbridge” Debert says as she talks about the collaborative nature of her study. “If you start a dialogue with other campuses and researchers in other places they can bring such a wealth of information and a new outlook on the research you’re doing.”

CAN Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Chester Ho

Dr. Chester Ho is Section Head of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the Department of Clinical Neurosciencesat the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and also an associate professor in the university’s Cumming School of Medicine.

Complex Spinal Cord Injuries and A Holistic Approach

Dr. Chester Ho is Section Head of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Calgary. He is a member of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and also an associate professor in the university’s Cumming School of Medicine.

Dr. Ho received his undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Cambridge in England. After an internship in internal medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, he moved to Boston to train in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Dr. Ho’s main clinical and research interests include spinal cord injury rehabilitation and pressure ulcer prevention and treatment – a significant issue after spinal cord injury.

Working with patients with spinal cord injury issues that affect their entire body has led Dr. Ho to adopt a holistic approach to treatment.

“Instead of just treating one body organ system, you’re treating everything, and you really follow your patients for the rest of their lives, so you become very involved with their care and I like that.”

Dr. Ho is a member of Campus Alberta Neuroscience’s Nervous System Injury Research Theme Group. Their focus on exploring spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, advancements in rehabilitation, and nervous system regeneration was a perfect fit for Dr. Ho and his holistic approach. In 2014, Dr. Ho was an integral part of organizing CAN’s 2014 Symposium which focused heavily on Nervous System Injury and rehabilitation.

Dr. Ho is working with partners across Alberta, including Campus Alberta Neuroscience (CAN), to create a registry that will allow doctors and researchers to track the long-term outcomes and effects of spinal cord injuries. He hopes the registry will foster provincewide research collaborations and build the kind of strong foundations required to advance rehabilitation treatments and techniques.

CAN Researcher Spotlight: Dr. Keith Yeates

Dr. Keith Yeates has been a professor of psychology and an adjunct professor of paediatrics and clinical neurosciences at the University of Calgary since the spring of 2014. Recently, with support from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, he was named the Ronald and Irene Ward Chair in Paediatric Brian Injury.

Dr. Keith Yeates has been a professor of psychology and an adjunct professor of paediatrics and clinical neurosciences at the University of Calgary since the spring of 2014. Recently, with support from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, he was named the Ronald and Irene Ward Chair in Paediatric Brian Injury.

“Over the years my work has focused on trying to better understand the outcomes of childhood brain disorders broadly, but particularly traumatic brain injury,” says Dr. Yeates, who brings over 20 years of research experience to the field.

Recently awarded a CIHR Foundation Grant, he’s currently developing a nationwide project that takes a broad sampling of neurobiological and psychosocial risk factors and examines the roles they play in predicting children’s trajectory of recovery following concussions. “We want to translate our findings into interventions that have the potential to prevent the persistent symptoms that a substantial subgroup of kids tend to have,” says Yeates.

After spending time working in the United States, Yeates found himself drawn to the collaborative opportunities Alberta has to offer. “That’s one of the reasons I came here, I think the research environment is more conducive to collaborative work than in the States.”

Yeates is a member of Campus Alberta Neuroscience’s Nervous System Injury Research Theme Group, where his focus on traumatic brain injury puts him in good company along with researchers exploring spinal cord injuries, developments in rehabilitation, and nervous system regeneration. As a new arrival to the Alberta neuroscience and mental health community, Yeates looks forward to developing new collaborations. “I just find you can’t do this sort of stuff without making it a team effort, and it’s fun to be able to do it with people from all over the province.”

Campus Alberta Neuroscience’s newly launched Postdoctoral Fellowship program is of particular interest to Yeates as he plans to build up his stable of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The program’s unique focus on multi-campus collaborations gives trainees and students access to exciting opportunities in labs across Alberta. “I’m excited about the possibility of bringing together all these people and providing the resources to get a handle on the big questions about concussions and traumatic brain  injury because there’s still a lot we don’t know.”