How I became a neuroscientist

I am often asked how I found my career.  From an early age, I’ve obsessed over two things: automobiles, and psychology.  The arc that carried me to a career where I can pursue these interests is rather long.  I describe the journey here so that any readers interested in changing their paths to pursue an exotic interest can have a blueprint for what it takes to chase down a goal.

After high school, I didn’t care about school, I wanted to snowboard and play soccer, so I began by going to a small college in north Lake Tahoe, majoring in ski resort management.  It was a failed experiment, and I left after a semester.  I decided to transfer to a school near my friends and go to a two-year community college to figure out what I wanted to do.

After my freshmen year, I decided I wanted to be a mechanic and a clinical psychologist.   Restoring automobiles is a process of mindfulness that can be therapeutic; I saw this as a way to blend my two favorite interests.  At the same time, I had a strong interest in Buddhism, so I invented a goal to run an auto restoration shop doubling as a monastery;  the “monks” restore the cars.  I focused on automotive technology courses, learning auto-body and paint, and engine overhaul.  I spent my summers drag racing with my best friends, Danny Newman and family, and I learned first hand the art of auto restoration.  Over the course of college, we built a 1985 Toyota 4Runner, a 1964 Ford Fairlane Thunderbolt clone, a 1979 Ford Mustang II drag car, and a 1969 Ford Bronco.  My current project is a 1968 Chevy C10.




After two years at the community college I was accepted into UC Santa Cruz, where I majored in Psychology.  My first psychology course, Introduction to Cognition, was taught by my first academic mentor, Meg Wilson.  After doing well on a midterm, Meg invited me to join her lab.  Working in her lab inspired me to abandon my idea to start a zen autobody restoration monastery (it’s feasible I swear!), and  instead focus on science.


I switched to research because of the similarities it has with restoring cars.  These pursuits begin with a question, or inspiration by what others have done.  The process is riddled with mistakes, false starts and obstacles.  If you’re lucky, the result will be something you can share with others.  The processes take about the same amount of time, depending on the level of the project.  Projects are never truly finished, they just morph into other questions, challenges, and the desire to top your previous best effort.

As an aside, there is one critical difference between science and automotive restoration: I figured that research was a career that I could do for 30 or 40 years without a toll on my body. My old body-shop teacher used to say, “You don’t meet a lot of old bodymen.”

When I was near to graduating from UC Santa Cruz, I began to think about my career options.  I had three criteria for choosing my career:  1. What is something I can never solve? 2. What is something I can never be bored of? 3. What is a topic/venture that when I hear about, I only want to know more? I satisfied these three conditions by pursuing a career to understand the brain.

From there I resolved to matriculate into graduate school in the field of cognitive neuroscience with a focus on brain imaging.  There was one main problem in that I did not know anything about neurons or brain imaging.  I had taken no neuroscience classes in college, and I had never seen a brain scanner.

After graduating, I figured I should start by trying to work in a lab that used brain imaging.  UCSC does not have a brain scanner, but 40 miles away, at Stanford, they have a brain scanner in between every bathroom and water fountain.

I began by applying to jobs in Stanford’s brain imaging labs to work as a professional research assistant.   My applications went into a black hole, the mass of failed applications to Stanford being large enough to stop the escape of light from their presence.


Frustrated by the lack of response,  when I saw a job posting for an interesting lab, I decided that rather than apply online, I would drive to the lab and try for a better response in person.  The posting came the next day.  The job posting was for Brian Wandell’s Stanford Institute for Reading and Learning group, working with Brian and his colleague Bob Dougherty.  I drove to Stanford the next day, parked at a meter and ventured into Jordan Hall’s fourth floor.

[As an aside, I know now that I probably could have gotten the same effect from a direct email and maybe a phone call–walking into someone’s office is a bit of a risk.  I wouldn’t necessarily imitate this behavior. ]

I found Bob working at his desk, knocked on the door and said, “Dr. Dougherty, I’m here about the job posting, do you have a moment to talk?”  He looked at me with a slightly puzzled look but eventually allowed me into his office to chat.  He asked me about my past research and I did my best to describe it.  He was very supportive, but I could tell I was a long way from being hired– for many good reasons. I didn’t get the job, but Bob was kind enough to bring me on as a volunteer.

Later, I met the guy they hired for the job–he was amazing, I would have hired him over me any day, no question, not even close.

At the same time, I was very lucky to be hired at UCSC working as a teaching assistant.  On the days that I didn’t teach, I drove to Stanford a few days every week to get experience.  The academic environment in the lab at Stanford was so rich.  Every morning, we would take a coffee break to chat over lab matters, the topics ranged from science, to culture to politics.  The lab was filled with people from all over the world and discussions were lively and well-informed.  I also was very much in over my head in terms of experience, but I read a lot, worked long hours and I like to think that I helped them advance their research program while I was there.

After a year, my then girlfriend, now wife, was accepted to law school in southern California, and I decided I would move with her.  The job-hunting process began anew, applying to research assistant jobs, and not having much luck.  This was 2006, and I heard that Antonio Damasio, one of my research heroes, was moving to USC to start a lab.   In my interest in mind and emotion, I had read Antonio’s books, Looking for Spinoza and Descartes’ Error, and was intrigued by his point of view.   Antonio and his wife, Hanna, were just starting the Brain and Creativity Institute.  The mission of the BCI was to blend science and society, to study emotion and decision-making.  Once I heard there was such a thing as the Brain and Creativity Institute, I knew I had to be involved.


It took sending some letters of recommendation, but I was eventually able to get a meeting with Antonio.  I was, and am, blessed enough to have him hire me to join the new institute, and I’ve been working for him ever since.  I spent a year working with Hanna and Antonio as a professional research assistant, and I started graduate school in 2007 in USC’s Neuroscience Graduate Program.  I graduated with my PhD in Neuroscience in 2014, and I am now a post-doctoral research associate of the BCI.

Why bother with the long story?  I do so to remind people that you can get to a lot of places and goals if you are willing to take the extreme steps and sacrifices to get there. Once I knew I wanted to be a neuroscientist, I didn’t see the repeated rejection as a problem, since I knew I was going to be able to get to the place I needed to be.  Although I have focused mostly on what worked, take my word for it when I say I was rejected often, and sometimes harshly.

Rejection was only a way of learning what routes I could not take to get there.  I am an extreme extrovert, which certainly helped me summon the courage to walk into Bob’s office that day.  I also want to say that there are other ways to do the same thing if you are a little more shy.  You can read a journal article from a lab you’re interested in and send an email to the investigators asking a science-based question, or you can download an existing dataset and reanalyze the data with a new question and present it to the investigators.  You must do these things well–asking a bad question will definitely remove you from consideration.  But if you do a good job, and are genuine in your interest, these things will show initiative.

There are a lot of ways to get things done, just start swinging!

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