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Rob Malenka, Stanford neuro prof, on a life in science and crafting a career

Rob Malenka: Nancy Friend Pritzker Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University

In today’s episode, Nick gets to speak to Dr. Rob Malenka, his “scientific grandfather,” or the mentor of his mentor. Rob has one of the largest and most well-developed “family trees” of neuroscientific training; according to the incomplete database at Neurotree.org he has trained at least 55 scientists, who have mentored 242 scientists themselves. A sizable portion of these researchers are not only professors, but leaders in their fields: inventors of paradigm-changing techniques, heads of departments or institutes, and influential thinkers.

A Thriving Neuro Family Tree

Why have the Malenka laboratory’s trainees flourished? Nick tries to find out more from Rob about his attitude toward science, his approach to solving problems, and some examples of the advice he offers to his mentees. Rob is quick to praise his current and former employees for their talents, suggesting that they deserve much of the credit for their own accomplishments. But he also believes that, through his training, he’s been able to impart some of his own philosophy about scientific rigor and intensity — attitudes which he attributes to one of his own mentors, Roger Nicoll.

Rob also believes in the importance of networking and communication to one’s development as a researcher, and discusses some of the sociological aspects of science with Nick. He thinks of scientific work as an “incredibly social activity” — very few researchers do their work in a vacuum, and almost everyone requires insights and criticisms from their mentors and colleagues in order to do their best work. Rob even believes that the success of entire fields of inquiry can be related to their social dynamics. “There were many fields of neuroscience which did not advance as they should have,” he posits, “because people were too shy to say what they were thinking.”

“I’m a passionate believer,” Rob says, “that none of us are smart enough to know what kind of finding is going to have an impact on our understanding of brain function and mental illness. The best approach is to do the best science that one can. Try to find questions that you think are fundamentally important.” It is evident that Rob has a talent for identifying these questions. He’s been on the ground floor of major findings and trends in neuroscience, from delineating the molecular machinery which re-weights the connections between neurons, to understanding how these same mechanisms underlie the potent effects of drugs of abuse, to comprehending how specific neurons work in the context of the circuits that they are embedded in.

There were many fields of neuroscience which did not advance as they should have because people were too shy to say what they were thinking.

Rob Malenka

The Future of the Malenka Lab

So what is the Malenka lab focusing on now? Rob says that over the next decade he wants to apply findings in basic neuroscience to academic psychiatry. One mechanism for doing so may be through a thorough investigation of psychoactive drugs like MDMA (also known as the club drug ecstasy). Rob claims that, if everything that one thinks and feels is the byproduct of molecular changes in one’s brain, then there should be a fundamental equivalence between diverse ways of modulating the nervous system — whether that is psychotherapy, learning, or psychoactive drugs. If this is true then perhaps studying a drug that evokes empathy in humans will be the key to understanding its neural underpinnings.

Rob’s Favorite Books

Oops! We’re still reading. Check back soon for Rob’s picks.

Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.

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