Q&A with Farran Briggs, Ph.D.

Jan. 29, 2020

Farran Briggs, Ph.D., joined the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience in 2017 as an associate professor in the Departments of Neuroscience, Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and the Center for Visual Sciences. She received her B.A. in Biology from Dartmouth College and Ph.D. in Biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work focuses on neuronal circuits in the visual system, and how attention affects the brain’s ability to process visual information.

Tell us a little bit about your research.

Farrah BriggsFB: I am a vision neuroscientist. Broadly speaking, the questions that most interest me involve trying to understand how specific neuronal circuits in the early visual system encode visual information. I am also interested in how things like attention change the way that visual information is encoded in neuronal circuits. I am always interested in connecting structure with function. So every time I study a neural circuit, I want to understand the cellular components of that circuit: what is the morphology and physiology of each component neuron? What is the conductivity among neurons? The ultimate goal is to understand the causal role of identified neuronal circuits in vision. Malfunctions in some of these neuronal circuits in the early visual system could be implicated in a variety of diseases including sensory hypersensitivity and even Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Other potential translational applications pertain to attention deficits that are components to many neuropsychiatric disorders.

What brought you to the University of Rochester?

FB: I was a faculty member at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth for six years before I came to UR. My reasons were simple: for vision research in highly visual animal models, UR is one of the best institutions in the world. The Center for Visual Science (CVS), which has one of the longest running core grants and training grants for vision research in the country, includes an unprecedented number of faculty studying vision at all levels from the optics of the eye to visual cognition. Additionally, there’s a concentration of research at UR involving similar animal models and techniques to those I use in my research. I’m surrounded by an amazing community of people who are doing similar things to me, which was not the case previously.

Is there anyone at UR with whom you had been especially looking forward to collaborating?

FB: I am currently engaged in a couple of active collaborations with faculty in CVS, specifically Krystel Huxlin and Bill Merigan. One of our projects involves understanding the downstream effects of retinal disease. Diseases like glaucoma, for example, cause damage to retinal ganglion cells, the output neurons of the retina. There has been remarkable progress made in understanding glaucoma progression in the eye. However, we know very little about what happens when you deprive the rest of the visual system of its major input. You can envision a situation where retinal function is restored through a prosthetic or stem cell therapy in a patient who was blind for some period, but their visual perception has been altered. We know very little about how the visual system is altered by loss of retinal input, so it’s very difficult to comprehend how we might need to supplement retinal treatment in order to provide full vision restoration.

In addition to developing an animal model of glaucoma and we also want to produce an animal model of visual cortical stroke. We are interested in the thalamus because the visual cortex provides a robust input to the visual thalamus. If we can replicate vision loss in animal models of stroke that mimic what researchers have observed in their patients, we will be able to measure the functional changes that occur in individual neurons. Again, insights gained from our animal models may inform better approaches to visual therapy for patients.

Do you have a favorite piece of advice from your own mentor, or someone who has inspired you in your career?

FB: Starting out as a new PI is really challenging. It’s trial by fire when you’re a new faculty member and sometimes you feel that if your experiments don’t work every day, you’re not going to make it. I went through a difficult phase during my first couple of years, where I would constantly question whether I was good enough to make this career work. At a particularly low point, I called up my postdoc advisor, Marty Usrey, for advice. He told me that he had no doubt that I have what it takes, but he also said that I needed to be sure that I felt the same about myself. He told me to evaluate whether what I was doing made me happy, because if I get to a point where I’m unhappy, then it’s time to consider alter- natives. That was really good advice. In the end, what matters most is that you’re happy and that you’re doing something you love. I think I really needed to hear that in that moment.

What do you like to do for fun outside of the lab?

FB: That is a fun question, although my answer is a little sad because my participation in my non-work activities has dwindled over the years. I’ve always been an athlete and participated in different types of sports, and when I was a graduate student and a postdoc, I got excited about triathlons. I loved the training; long solo rides and runs are such a great anti- dote to science, which is cerebral and detail oriented. Those runs and rides were meditative, a fantastic way to switch my mind into a different mode over a long period. The downside was the amount of training required, up to 40 hours per week. Partway through my postdoc, I realized this time commitment was not sustainable. I still love to ride my bike, run and swim, though, and I would love to get back into triathlons someday. Maybe when I’m 80.

Any final thoughts you would like to share?

FB: I’m really excited about the great potential for new collaborations at UR. I want to test my hypothesis that even some of the early circuits in the visual system might be implicated in sensory hypersensitivity. At UR, we’re surrounded by experts on ASD and other developmental disorders and I would love to keep developing this project and potential collaborations with PIs studying these disorders in humans. There’s a lot of potential.