Hugo Tejeda: Chief of the Unit on Neuromodulation and Synaptic Integration at the National Institute of Mental Health
This week’s episode is special to our host, Nick, as it features someone who played a mentorship role in his own science career; Hugo Tejeda was a postdoc at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) while Nick was a graduate student. Today, Hugo has his own lab at the National Institute on Mental Health (NIMH) and is the Chief of NIMH’s Unit on Neuromodulation and Synaptic Integration, where he studies neuromodulation in limbic circuits.
One Step at a Time
Higher education wasn’t on teenage Hugo’s radar — or, more accurately, he really just had not thought that far ahead yet. When Hugo went to college, he had not considered what he wanted to major in until a counselor asked him. He thought maybe he could become a high school counselor, and was therefore advised to major in psychology. It was in a psychology class that Hugo was first exposed to neural circuits and the physiological basis of behavior, the subject that he would ultimately dedicate his career to.
In a lot of ways, Hugo has taken his scientific journey one step at a time. “I think it’s the way humans are meant to develop,” he shares, both with regard to development as people and as scientists. In his experience, taking baby steps in scientific training is essential. “The lure of doing cutting edge science is there, and it’s fantastic,” Hugo explains, but it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew as a young scientist. In his experience, the most successful trainees focus deeply on one or two skills (such as hypothesis testing or experimental design), then move forward to the next challenge, rather than racing to build a broad skill set all at once. Hugo believes that this slow and steady approach “teaches you patience and the art of what it is to be a scientist.”
Good Mentorship Begets Good Mentors
When selecting a lab to work in as an undergraduate student, Hugo of course looked for someone who was doing research that interested him. What sold him on his final choice, however, was directly tied to the PI who would be his mentor. “She just gave me that good gut feeling,” Hugo says of undergrad mentor Laura O’Dell. Something told him that Dr. O’Dell was someone who would look out for his best interests, and he was right; she still acts as a mentor to him to this day.
When you go above and beyond the call of duty for somebody, they see that, and that empowers them, because they recognize that they are somebody that’s worth fighting for.Hugo Tejeda
Hugo believes that a good mentor is someone who genuinely cares for their trainees. “When you start to care like that, I think you go above and beyond what you’re supposed to do as a mentor, Hugo explains. “When you go above and beyond the call of duty for somebody, they see that, and that empowers them, because they recognize that they are somebody that’s worth fighting for.” For Hugo, that empowerment manifested in many ways, including the self-assuredness to spark a collaboration between two more great mentors — Drs. Patricio O’Donnell and Toni Shippenberg — so that he could pursue a thesis project that truly excited him working at both the University of Maryland and NIDA. Even in the face of considerable obstacles during graduate school, Hugo had learned the tools to cope and succeed due in no small part to the mentors who showed him just how capable he was.
Hugo’s career goals started with the notion of becoming a high school counselor so that he could help young students find the right path. As a PI, he does just that for young trainees (and Nick knows firsthand, he mentors quite well!) Seeking good mentors throughout training, just like Hugo did, molds not only great scientists but great mentors — an essential outcome for the well-being of academia.
*Endnote: You’ll need to listen to the episode to learn the answer to the question “how many scientists does it take to put out a greasefire?”
Hugo’s Favorite Books
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Notes for this episode were written by Caroline Sferrazza.