Interview with David Bucci, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College

David BucciThe DUJS talked to David Bucci, associate professor in the Psychological and Brain Sciences department and instructor of the popular Introduction to Neuroscience course, to gain insight into his life as a researcher, mentor, and teacher.

What has been the focus of your latest research?
I’ve got several things going on. The first is how exercise affects the brain and behavior. We’re particularly interested in what exercise does to neurons and brain cells to cause improvement in things like learning and memory. So we conduct studies where we have subjects, both humans and rats, run and exercise. In the rat models we can look at specific brain molecules associated with exercise and parts of the brain responsible for learning and memory. In humans we do parallel studies doing brain imaging and we look at what parts [of the brain] are more active following exercise when a human does a learning and memory task. For instance, we’re interested in how different brain regions work together to support different forms of learning. We’re also interested in why learning and memory goes awry in certain illnesses like ADHD and schizophrenia. We’re also in collaboration with the psychiatry department here at Dartmouth for those kinds of questions.

Do you look at both short-term and long-term effects of exercise on learning?

Right now we’re in the initial stages and there’s not a lot known about how much exercise you need to get these effects. No one knows how much exercise [is needed to cause an effect on learning], how long the effects last and if it’s more effective in exercising adolescents than in exercising adults. Perhaps the [adolescent] brain is more plastic, so these are exactly the sort of effects we’re trying to figure out. We have some hints that, in rats, in exercise on a running wheel during adolescence, the effects on learning and memory last longer than in adults. That’s one thing we’re relatively confident in now, but the rest of the data is in its early stages.

Why do you use both the rat and human models?
In the rat model we can actually go in and measure brain proteins and neurotransmitters that we can’t do in a human. After the rats exercise and do their learning and memory tasks, they are euthanized and we look at different proteins in the brain to look at the more biochemical questions. In the humans we’re looking for implications for public health. We can perhaps structure exercise regimens in schools in order to positively affect brain functions. But certainly we can’t go into an adolescent human’s brain and look at certain proteins and molecules, so for that we use the rat model.

Is there any new technology being developed that would help examine the human brain better?

Not really, besides brain imaging techniques to look at whether broad areas of the brain are active or not, but that tells us nothing on the single cell level, or protein level or any of the smaller changes in the brain. In the human we’re limited from the sort of invasive biochemical experiments.

How did you decide to focus in on this subject?
It was just a long-standing interest and fascination with the brain, in particular with learning and memory. Perhaps it’s because I can’t seem to remember much information that I have a vested interest in studying learning and memory. It’s an exciting thing to study and understand-since memory has a lot to do with who we are. It forms our identity-to find how those memories are stored, why we keep some or don’t keep some. They’re just fascinating questions. My background and interest have always been on the biological side. I thought I was going to be premed but I took an intro psych course as a freshman and got really interested in the biological side of behavior.

How many people work with you in your lab?

It changes at any given time but typically I have about three grad students, maybe a post-doctorate fellow and in any given year about a dozen undergraduates, though not all at the same time. But each term there’s about three or four undergrads. So it’s a good team of eight to ten people at a time.

How do you find people to work in the lab?
They find me. A lot of students at Dartmouth realize this is a really good environment to get involved in research and just doing scholarship in general with a faculty member, whether that’s working on poetry or working in a lab. There’s no need to advertise for students because the really inquisitive ones who really want to get involved will find us. And after that it’s really about fit, and finding out if their research interests match my interests and do they have just a little bit of background to help them get started right away and not spend so much time just learning the ropes. So I like to have students with a little prior experience in a lab or some coursework that could help them.

With such expensive equipment and repetitive lab work, costly mistakes are almost inevitable. What do you say to students who make a mistake in the lab?
Making a mistake and failing is a very important part of learning. To the extent that it’s not going to seriously disrupt a study, I let students make mistakes. Mistakes will happen and I’m certainly not trying to make someone fail but I am going to let them struggle to figure things out on their own to get a true sense of what research is like. It’s not easy, it takes a lot of sacrifice. The ideas and decisions are not easy ones. If that can be a learning experience great, but if it infringes on the integrity of the study it’s a problem. But I think it’s okay to fail and learn through that.

What advice would you give to students looking to get involved in science research?
The number one thing is to find a research topic that’s interesting. When I was in undergrad I went to a school where I didn’t have a ton of options and I ended up in a lab where I didn’t have a ton of interest-making all the struggles and failures even more laborious. The easiest way is to go to department web pages, look at the list of faculty and usually there’s a little blurb or a sentence about their research, and simply contact them. Perhaps don’t ask for a job or an honors project but just get your foot in the door and sit down and talk to the person. Perhaps ask to see their lab and their studies and decide if that’s for you. There are a ton of ways to get involved, work study jobs, volunteering, independent research project and honors projects.

How competitive is the field of research on learning and memory?
There are so many different parts of the brain and chemicals studied that there’s plenty to do. But there are several people exploring similar questions and that’s often healthy for science. The competition constant questioning of each other and skepticism is healthy. It’s competitive in that there are limited funds available for the research. Especially in economic downturns it’s difficult to find funding but it’s a big enough area that there’s plenty of room to get involved, get new ideas and go in new directions.

What is the most expensive part of running your lab?
Folks who use the MRI machine are using an extremely expensive multi-million dollar piece of equipment. There has to be a physicist on site to run and maintain it. In my lab we have expensive microscopes. It’s largely the instruments used to conduct the research that cost a lot of money. So you can imagine someone who’s not using tremendously sophisticated equipment can do research a lot cheaper so it really depends on what you’re studying. Someone who’s studying genetic mutations will be using incredibly expensive biochemical equipment, PCR machines and those sorts of things.

If there were no one else in the world studying learning and memory, how would your lab work change?
There are limitations, you can only be expert in so many things. If there were no one else studying learning and memory, it might be worth it to explore other avenues of research but we would get spread too thin. There are many many careers and decades and perhaps centuries of work to do. I think that if one were at a large state institution where there’s more space and larger labs perhaps we could get more people. But I’m particularly in favor of a smaller setting where you really get to know people well, so I’m not so sure I would change all that much actually.

What is the most rewarding part of research?
Finding out something no one else has found before is certainly exciting. But right there with it, if not more exciting is seeing students, especially undergraduates, get excited about finding new knowledge and bringing their fresh ideas into the lab and taking us in different directions that we haven’t thought of. Sometimes we get steeped in a lot of dogma and history but with someone with a fresh perspective who hasn’t been in the field so long you might think they wouldn’t know as much but usually that’s not the case. They usually ask a lot of questions that make us really think and question the years’ worth of dogma that we build up.

Could you talk about an instance when a student surprised you like that?
Sure, there was a student working in a lab closely related to mine and also in a high end neuroscience seminar of mine. She was all set and ready to go to med school but literally a year before she finished up here, she realized just how much she enjoyed discovery and creating new knowledge. Through a lot of discernment and personal questioning she finally came to the conclusion that she wanted to devote her life and her energy to studying the brain. Just seeing someone get that excited about research is really exciting to me. To think that I might have helped foster that is rewarding.
Also an undergrad who started working in my lab freshman year probably worked for me for six terms and I literally had to kick him out. As much as I wanted to keep him, I thought for his sake he should have been experiencing other things in his college career. He came screaming back to the lab because he just wanted to be there so much.  He was an author of multiple things in my lab, brought great ideas and was functioning at a very high level in the lab, so to see him thrive in that environment and make some serious contributions is very exciting and rewarding.
Some professors say that in the last twenty years or so they’ve seen students shift more to the pre-professional tracts for pre-med or engineering and how it has made the classroom a worse place.

Do you think that focusing too much on pre-med requirements hurts the students?

I’d say in the amount of time I’ve been doing this, I don’t see that in my own classes or necessarily as a problem. I think it’s important for students to actively decide why they’re doing these things and not just back into them like I did when I was in college. I thought, “I like biology,” for example, “so I guess I’ll go to med school.” That’s not good and that’s not healthy. Perhaps some students take a lot of classes that take up their time and realize later that it was a default option and not what they actually wanted to do. It could perhaps hurt the classroom but in my experience the building up of their abilities to critically think and not accept anything as a fact is important regardless of what they’re doing. But perhaps a pure emphasis on a vocation can close people’s minds to learn more but it’s never been a problem in my classroom.

What class do you most enjoy teaching?

Actually I most enjoy teaching the introductory larger courses. Yes there are a lot of students and it’s very difficult to get to know the students but there’s a lot of different ways to foster that. The brain scientist in me sees the brains of people in intro classes as very valuable and open. If I can get them excited about neuroscience and the brain that’s great. The opportunity to light the fire is exciting and challenging. At the same time I enjoy teaching the smaller senior level seminars where we can really get to some detailed questions because people have acquired so much background over four years. So both are rewarding.

Why did you decide to come to Dartmouth?
I think in large part because I think Dartmouth is honestly one of the few places that strikes this balance between valuing undergraduate education and creating new knowledge, whether that’s art or a bio lab or writing a book.  Faculty here are not only really good teachers but are also doing cutting- edge work. I find that attractive as opposed to places where faculty teach in a classroom and that’s all they’re really supposed to do, for instance at a small liberal arts college or at the other side in the large state institution where faculty just do research and grad students do the teaching. So I think Dartmouth has pulled faculty who really want to do both, and if they didn’t they wouldn’t be here, they’d go to one of those other institutions. So I think that makes for the ideal environment because I want to do both and students can really reap those benefits and get involved with us in research. I think a full 25 percent of the Dartmouth undergraduate student body gets involved in one-on-one research with faculty and I think that’s fabulous. And honestly Dartmouth students are brilliant and being surrounded by so many smart people is personally very exciting. There is a broad interest campus-wide in the brain and how it controls behavior.

Do you find it hard to strike this balance between teaching, research, and personal life?

There’s always another student to talk to, another paper to read, another paper to write. It is hard to walk away and call it a day. By the same token I think Dartmouth is a place where faculty and students alike have a life outside of the classroom. We’re surrounded by this natural beauty of Northern New England. So I think there’s a healthy appreciation here for family life and doing things off-campus that everybody shares so I think it makes it a little easier to close the door and go home at the end of the day. But I have to say that when the kids go to bed and everyone else is sleeping, I’m more likely than not on the computer and doing some work at home for several hours into the night. Perhaps no one sees that but many faculty work 50, 60, 70, 80 hours a week and there’s plenty of work to do.

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