Alex Naka: Bioinformaticist/Computational Biologist at Coda Biotherapeutics
Alex Naka is a scientist at CODA Biotherapeutics, where he uses bioinformatic techniques to research new treatments for neurological diseases. Alex and Nick–both former electrophysiologists–get an opportunity to bond over their shared love of whole-cell recordings and for sensory neuroscience. As a graduate student, Alex studied the patterns of connections between different populations of neurons in the barrel cortex, a region which processes incoming sensory information from a mouse’s whiskers. According to Alex, “one of the remarkable things about the cortex is that these different pieces of it that are ostensibly involved in very different things [such as motor control, hearing, and higher cognitive function] are essentially built from the same blueprint.” In other words, by understanding the architecture of one area of the cortex, he hoped to understand how the whole structure could perform so many different computations.
While he had been committed to being a professor for most of his adult life, Alex began to have second thoughts as he drew close to the end of his PhD. He says that, “When I was growing up I didn’t want to be an academic; I wanted to be a scientist.” He began to explore scientific careers outside of universities and decided to teach himself a variety of new statistical techniques. Alex accepted a position as a postdoctoral fellow within the biotechnology company Genentech, and stayed there for a year. Then he decided that he preferred to work entirely on computational problems, and moved on to his current position at CODA.
Even if he had known in advance that he was destined to leave academia, Alex still thinks he would have decided to attend graduate school. “For all of the griping I’ve done about it,” he jokes, it’s an “incredible privilege […] to be able to figure things out about how the universe works.” He talks about the ways in which graduate school provides a “trial-by-fire” opportunity to train in diverse skills such as how to present information, manage complex projects, and argue for your perspective.
When I was growing up I didn’t want to be an academic; I wanted to be a scientist.Alex Naka
Listen to Alex and Nick’s free-wheeling conversation on the culture of science, the merits of basic research, and secrets about how the brain works!
Alex’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!
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
- Hyperion by Dan Simmons
- Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter
- Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic
- If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino
- Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson
Notes for this episode were written by Sam Asinof.