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UW Asst. Prof., Sam Golden, on building a lab during a pandemic

Sam Golden: Assistant Professor in the University of Washington Department of Biological Structure and the Center of Excellence in Neurobiology of Addiction, Pain, and Emotion (NAPE)

“I think that most good science starts with an anecdote.” So says Sam Golden, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Biological Structure. While he shares fascinating tales with Nick about his upbringing, his introduction to science, and the perils he faced while backpacking in Patagonia, the most compelling stories that Sam tells in this episode are about his work.

In fact, Sam’s PhD dissertation (and much of the work that his laboratory conducts today) came from his resolve to understand an anecdotal observation: why are some mice so much more aggressive than others? He invented new techniques to quantify aggression and discovered that this variability could actually be controlled by the level of activity in a specific subset of neurons.

Dissecting Aggression

Both rodents and humans have a variety of reasons for fighting one another, ranging from self-defense to bullying. And yet most behavioral assays of fighting only measure reactive aggression, where the animal has little control of the situation underlying the fight. As a graduate student and as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Sam developed new methods to distinguish between these different motivations in individual animals, an effort which he is continuing in his own lab. For example, he gave animals the opportunity to fight a conspecific — but only if they pressed a lever a certain number of times, essentially giving the mice a choice rather than forcing them into the situation as other paradigms entailed. The “bully” mice which were rewarded by aggression wouldn’t care about the tedium of lever pressing and would press until they were able to get into a brawl.

When Sam was a trainee this work necessitated watching hours upon hours of video, manually annotating when each animal exhibited aggressive behavior. However, a group of scientists from his lab have developed an elegant method to drastically reduce this workload. SimBA (Simple behavioral analysis) is an open-source software package which uses the locations of specific body parts in order to make a frame-by-frame prediction about what behaviors an animal is performing. While the Golden Lab uses it to determine when and how mice are fighting, in principle it could be used to measure most behaviors from multiple kinds of model organisms.

A New Generation of Principal Investigators

Sam’s willingness to invest time and funding in open-source projects like SimBA is indicative of his membership in a new generation of scientists who tend to approach academic research collaboratively rather than competitively. SimBA was first described in a preprint publication hosted by BioRXiV–a non-peer-reviewed format in which the work is publicly available and other scientists can offer comments or advice. Preprint publishing is inherently risky — anyone could copy major details from a preprint and then submit it to a scientific journal themselves. Sam accepts this risk, saying that he “chooses not to operate the lab in a defensive posture.” Being open with his lab’s science has far more important positive consequences; it has introduced him and his trainees to new collaborators and opened important lines of communication to scientists in the United States and abroad. Sam is very active on Twitter and on the Neuromethods Slack channel, using both to give and receive information about techniques and interesting findings with scientists around the world.

There will always be a next position, and there’s only one life.

Sam Golden

In running his own laboratory, Sam tries to replicate the environments that made him fall in love with scientific research. He aims to foster communication between his trainees by making every project in the lab a collaboration. “People start doing bad science when they start feeling these pressures that aren’t really there,” he says. While he says that it can be tempting to work to the exclusion of all else in order to succeed in academia, Sam doesn’t think it’s worthwhile in the long run. “There will always be a next position,” he says, “and there’s only one life.”

So what track should junior scientists take in order to succeed in academia? Sam’s advice: Just be yourself. “You can control how interesting your question is, how thorough your approaches are, how scholarly your literature is. Surround yourself with really good people and find mentors who you can ask hard questions to and who will give you honest answers. And do good science.”

Sam’s Favorite Books

Once a Scientist is made possible by support from our listeners! Each week, we ask our interviewee to tell us about their favorite books. If any of these reads catch your eye, you can support the show by using the links below to buy a copy for yourself!

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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