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Meet Luis Franco: A Postdoctoral Fellow in Neuroscience at UC Santa Barbara

1. What is your name, institution, and field of study?

Name: Luis M. Franco

Institution: UC Santa Barbara

Field: Neuroscience

2. How did your neuroscience journey begin?

By the end of my BSc program in biochemical engineering, I was particularly interested in science and contributing to our understanding of biological processes. The idea of making new discoveries and helping out to better comprehend living systems was fascinating to me. At the same time, I was also intrigued by how our brains generate thoughts, ideas, and many other complex cognitive processes.

With this in mind, I decided to join a M.Sc. program in Neurobiology. This is when my journey began. A little over a decade after, my understanding of the nervous system has certainly increased. However, every time new pieces of knowledge come to light more questions arise, and I feel as motivated as I was at the beginning of my journey to try to find answers for them.

3. What is your research focus? What techniques are you using to study the neuronal circuit mechanisms involved in your research focus?

During the last few years, I have been involved in studying how neuronal networks encode and store information from the environment in the cortex. To this end, I use a combination of behavioral approaches, optogenetics, and imaging tools that allow me to manipulate and record the activity of large populations of neurons during the performance of a task.

Using these techniques, we have identified a neuronal circuit in retrosplenial cortex involved in the encoding and multiplexing of behavioral variables required to make decisions based on a particular environmental context. As a next step, we aim to understand the basic principles used by these neurons to store information across different time scales.

4. What is the most exciting aspect of the lab you are in? What is the future application of this? What is something that a non-scientist would find interesting/should know about?

One of the main reasons why I joined this lab is because we study neural computations at the same time a particular cognitive process is taking place. Using this approach, it is possible to dissect different neuronal circuits involved in specific aspects of cognition and behavior.

Ultimately, this will help us find mechanistic explanations for different brain functions, which is potentially useful to design new therapeutic approaches to treat disorders affecting the brain. Other applications include the design of computational tools such as artificial neural networks used in artificial intelligence or brain-machine interfaces important for prosthetics. In summary, I am very happy to be part of a group of scientists involved in the study of brain function, which will certainly help us have a better understanding of our own nature.

5. There’s an increasing amount of scientific misinformation within the general population, which can negatively impact policy and public action. What barriers do you believe scientists face when communicating science for a public audience, and how would they address these barriers?

I think the main problem is having reliable and trustworthy sources of information. Many people outside the scientific community find information on social media, the internet, or the TV, and take it as facts. It is important to make people aware that the information they find in these places might not always be true.

Indeed, even within the scientific community, sometimes data are interpreted in one way and some conclusions are made, but after some time, perhaps even years, other scientists find a better or more accurate explanation, and new conclusions are made. Some scientific journals nowadays have a presence in social media, communicating complex scientific findings for general audiences, which I think is a good way to address the amount of misinformation.

In addition, different research institutes, as well as universities, have their own departments involved in the communication of recent findings from their own labs. All these are good strategies, however, this information might not reach everyone, and that is why it is important to continue our efforts to increase the number of trustworthy sources of information.

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