This summer, Manuel Gomez-Ramirez arrived from Brown University to join the University of Rochester (UR) as an assistant professor in the Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and Neuroscience. His Haptic Perception Lab will focus on developing mechanistic models of how objects are perceived and manipulated with our hands, with the ultimate goal of using these models to optimize neural stimulation strategies for brain-computer interfaces and neuroprosthetics. We sat down with Manny, the guitar-playing, cocktail-making neuroscientist, to talk about what he’s most looking forward to at UR.
Tell us a little bit about your research and what you'll be doing at the University?
My lab’s main interest is to understand the neural mechanisms that mediate haptic perception and control, that is, study the brain mechanisms that enable us to grab and manipulate objects with our hands. My lab employs a variety of tools to understand these mechanisms in different animal models. We utilize a comprehensive approach, in that we use electrophysiology, coupled with novel genetic-based optical methods, such as optogenetics and calcium-based imaging, which enable us to look at a variety of different cells in one picture. And, very importantly, manipulate those cells in a more fine-tuned than most neural stimulation methods.
In our lab, we'll be using the mouse and non-human primate model. The idea is to tap into the best use of these animals for the research question that we need to address. Non-human primates are phenomenal for understanding the brain mechanisms of how we grab objects because they, just like humans, use the hands to directly manipulate objects in the world. Mice, on the other hand, (no pun intended) don't necessarily scan and manipulate objects with their paws. Yet, they're phenomenal for studying cell-type specific neural circuits in an awake-behaving mammal, which can potentially lead to fundamental findings about general brain principles that can later be tested in a non-human primate model.
One of the overall goals of my lab is to develop techniques that can be of use to clinical populations, such as amputees and tetraplegic. One example is developing strategies that integrate brain signals with prosthetic devices in order to control these devices directly. I think that tools like chemogenetics and optogenetic tools, in combination with electrophysiology, which is the main tool that is used in the field right now, is a good way to go about this.
Is there anyone here that you're looking forward to collaborating with?
I've actually already started some collaborations. I’ve put in a grant with Marc Schieber in the Departments of Neurology, Neuroscience, Center for Visual Science, and Biomedical Engineering, and with Greg DeAngelis in BCS to look at the idea of how can we use combined optogenetics and electrophysiology as a way to provide tactile information to the brain, and elicit motion percepts on the hand. The ultimate goal is to use this technique for brain-machine interface solutions. I’m also collaborating with Marvin Doyley in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering on a project to increase bio-availability of luciferins (bioluminescent drivers) to the brain, and perform non-invasive neural stimulation studies in non-human primates using bioluminescent light that drive optogenetic elements expressed in selective circuits of the brain.
What drew you to the University of Rochester?
The number of great resources and researchers that one can tap into is so diverse in terms of discipline, even within my own department. I can go in and talk to people like Ralf Haefner about computational collaborations, or go in and talk to people like Marc Schieber, and Greg DeAngelis about neural stimulation methods. Or Duje Tadin about psychophysics and cross model perception. It's just a great community for brain science, tapping into different techniques and different domains that I can then use in my own research. During my short time here, I’ve found that everybody has been very welcoming and supportive of my plans.
What are you most excited about during your first year?
I am really looking forward to starting my own project with the grad students that I've already committed. I think it's going to be a great experience, a new adventure. It's something that I've always dreamed of, having my own lab, mentoring students and personnel. Starting a project from the very beginning and teaching them all the basics about the methodology that we're going to use, the research that we're going to do—it's something that I'm very, very excited about.
Do you have a favorite piece of advice from your own mentor, or someone who's inspired you in your career?
My former supervisor mentioned something really interesting to me recently. He said to me, “Manny, you're going to be a junior PI, and you're going to get advice from many different people, and you're going to be getting it constantly, and you should listen to it. But ultimately, you should always stay true to yourself.” Meaning, if you're not comfortable with it, then you're not going to be fully happy implementing that piece of advice. So, try and find a good marriage between the advice that you're given and what you fundamentally believe in.
What do you like to do for fun outside of the lab?
I love to cook; I’m most recently focused on cooking French and Spanish dishes. If I eat something at a restaurant that I enjoy, I will try to replicate it at home. I really love the culinary field in general, including experimenting with cocktail recipes. Music is another big part of my life...going to concerts, playing guitar—mostly classic jazz and bossa nova, but also grunge rock and punk music from the 70’s and 80’s. I went into college as a musician before I learned about neuroscience and quickly switched my major. I’ve heard great things about the Rochester Jazz Festival so I’ll want to check that out next year.