Stem Cell Scientist Spotlight with Alex Poulopoulos

Alex Poulopoulos is a postdoc in the Macklis lab. He is originally from Athens, Greece, and earned his PhD in neuroscience jointly from the International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) and the University of Göttingen in Germany.  He sat down to tell us about his work in the lab, some excellent reading he’s done recently, and to weigh in on where he would fit in the world of Game of Thrones.

And in case you’re wondering, Jorge, the sunglasses-toting skull in the background of his photo, is a brain anatomy model. He lived in a Greek neurobiology lab for about 20 years, until he immigrated to the U.S. with Alex.  Apparently he’s been an excellent travelling companion, even going to Mexico with Alex during the summers to teach a science club on brain circuits. (Alex teaches the course, not Jorge.)

Matrix: So, what do you get up to in the Macklis Lab?

Alex: The lab works on several aspects of cortical development, disease, and regeneration in the mouse brain. I work on how long-range circuits form, specifically circuits that connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain. My colleagues and I do this by looking directly at growing axons as they sprout out from neurons in one hemisphere to reach all the way across to the other. We use proteomics and RNAseq to figure out what subcellular machinery wires these connections appropriately, and what complex interactions between cells result in functioning brain circuits, those which allow us to think, coordinate movement in both our hands, and produce speech but also understand it using different sides of our brain.

Matrix: That sounds like neat stuff! Have you read any interesting research papers related to that lately?

One paper published last month in PLOS Biology was pretty cool, it was called: Restoring the ON Switch in Blind Retinas: Opto-mGluR6, a Next-Generation, Cell-Tailored Optogenetic Tool.  Authored by Michiel van Wyk, Justyna Pielecka-Fortuna, Siegrid Lowel, and Sonja Kleinlogel. This group created a chimeric light-sensing protein, and introduced it into blind mice. The mice lost their normal photoreceptor cells (similar to many conditions of human blindness), so the group introduced their new light-sensing protein into neurons in the eyes that normally don’t sense light by themselves, but are activated indirectly by the light-sensing photoreceptor cells. That way they circumvented the loss of native photoreceptor cells by making these downstream neurons themselves able to directly detect light, and the blind mice could once again see!! (Well they can sort of see, they wouldn’t be issued a pilot’s license or anything… but still!)

Matrix: That’s so cool! Is your non work-related reading just as interesting? 

Alex: Well the last book that I read was Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) by Christian Rudder, who is a Harvard graduate in Mathematics and co-founded the website OKCupid. (I’m not on there though ladies, sorry!)  He wrote a book based on the huge amounts of data that had been collected from the site. The book starts off very light, showing statistics from the dating site, and then swings to the greater implications of how folks respond to questions and how the data from those types of decisions can have much larger political ramifications. It’s fascinating and full of lots of graphs and charts documenting the data.

Matrix: Now for a timely question, given the season finale this week of the very popular TV show Game of Thrones: Do you watch it, and if so – where do you see yourself fitting into that world, if you were a character in it?

Alex: Of course I watch it! Who doesn’t? Well no Night’s Watch for me - I prefer the warm climate that I’m used to from my real-world homeland. I’d also want to travel to many places, so I wouldn’t want to belong to any of the seven kingdoms of Westeros that have their interests vested in any particular domain. I think I’d be a forgotten descendent from the very old and ruined city of Valyria, which was formerly a great cultural center and the home of the dragonlords. Since it’s an ancient city of past greatness, that would be close to my own heritage from Athens – they both share a historical golden age that’s now over!

Matrix: So you’d be “A Lost Valyrian?” That has a nice ring to it.  And finally, for our now classic question.  What food item can always be found in your fridge?

Alex: Greek yogurt, what else? At least a whole tub of it. But I have a confession to make. My Greek yogurt is actually from Australia, because I find that theirs tastes better.  My ancestors would denounce me for saying that though!  But yeah I really go to town with it – a vat of yogurt in hand, big spoon, couch. (You know, for when I’m watching Game of Thrones.)

See also: Spotlight