A young and slightly off-kilter scientist thrives
Neurobiologist Ricardo Dolmetsch, PhD, spares no one in his annual Christmas letter, and that includes himself.
The jokester's 2006 screed, for instance, contained this self-mockery: In his third year as a Stanford faculty member he has embarked on several crusades including a plan to get everyone in his lab a pet goldfish and a campaign to abolish lint.
"There wasn't a particular reason for the lint campaign," Dolmetsch said. "I just hate it and don't really understand why it builds up on nice sweaters."
The goldfish crusade never got off the ground, but it showed how Dolmetsch runs his research lab with a light touch. "It occurred to me that giving every lab member a goldfish might make them feel loved, and ensure that they show up for at least a few hours each day," he said.
Others enjoy his impish humor. "He's a lot of fun," said James Ferrell, PhD, professor of chemical and systems biology and of biochemistry, "and a really good scientist to boot." In 2004, Dolmetsch was named a Searle Scholar, a top biomedical prize, which he described as "a pretty prestigious award given to young and slightly off-kilter scientists." Last year, he won the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award, the society's top prize for contributions made during the first decade of a scientist's career.
Dolmetsch took to science early. During his high school days in Colombia, when he wasn't kicking soccer balls, he read voraciously, sometimes testing his book knowledge in creative ways. He once came across the idea of "stretch potentials," where specialized muscle fibers called spindles give the muscle feedback on how stretched it is. This feedback, or stretch potential, is easily recorded by inserting an electrode into insect muscles.
"Colombia has plenty of large cockroaches and they're easy to catch," Dolmetsch said. "I also knew some basic electronics, enough to get into trouble." He sacrificed many unhappy roaches in "a million experiments" to examine the stretch potential theory for himself, generating a ton of static electricity in the process and shaking up his father's prized stereo amplifier badly enough that it never fully recovered.
These days, science still keeps Dolmetsch busy. He studies calcium channel signaling, which plays an important role in critical aspects of the brain.
"Calcium is really the way experience gets converted into biochemistry," Dolmetsch explained. "Experience in the brain occurs through electrical activity; calcium is the critical link between electrical signals traveling through neurons and the biochemical events necessary to change the wiring of your brain." His research group is trying to figure out how calcium channels "talk" to biochemical pathways responsible for changes in gene expression, or a cell's shape or survival.
One project involves exploring how memory is stored in a brain circuit. It's understood theoretically, but not in practical terms.
"What hasn't been studied well is how you take a set of neurons and store information in them—what do the neurons actually need to do this?" Dolmetsch said. The brain, he added, stores information very differently than a computer. Unlike packaging information in "cubbyholes" where it's easily retrieved, which is how a computer works, connection patterns are formed in the brain that allow it to recreate experiences later. In other words, it's like having to build the floor model each time you remember a building.
"This means information storage is reduced to the pattern of activity in a set of neurons," said Dolmetsch. "The question is how many such patterns can a set of neurons store? It isn't known."
Besides using calcium channel signaling to figure out the basis of information storage in the brain, Dolmetsch has approximately half of his six graduate students working on diseases associated with dysfunctional calcium channels, such as autism. Many cases of autism result from defective electrical regulation in the brain during development, and from mutations in calcium channels. Dolmetsch's lab has generated a variety of mouse and fly models to study this disease, which he finds particularly interesting because autism is also a disease of social function. Much of the neurobiology behind this aspect, however, remains a mystery.
Those acquainted only with Dolmetsch's logical scientist side might be surprised at some of his other "projects." One of them was bouncing to work (from Stanford West Apartments to the medical school) on a pogo stick. He made it twice before giving up the idea as both "terrible for my computer and possibly lethal for me."
While earning his PhD at Stanford, Dolmetsch worked as a teaching assistant for the neuroanatomy class—and transported human brains on the back of his bicycle from the anatomy room to his expectant students.
"I was always terrified that I'd fall and end up with brainwash everywhere, or I'd be stopped by the police and have to explain why I was carrying human brains on my bicycle," Dolmetsch said.
Weddings are meant to be memorable occasions, and Dolmetsch's definitely was. He's also described the event, held in Colombia, as "a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous." He rode a white horse into a 16th-century Spanish fort for the ceremony, while his bride arrived in a flower-covered boat, amid strong winds and against the tide. The crowning moment occurred at dusk when the fort's denizens—a whole colony of tropical fruit bats, disturbed by the unexpected revelry—elected to depart their roost without warning. The guests took it in stride.
Dolmetsch's zany humor and quick scientific mind are a winning combination for many of those in his lab. "Ricardo is really great about teaching us how to succeed in science," graduate student Jake Brenner said. "He explains the larger points of scientific analysis with great enthusiasm, always with colorful examples from his previous experiences."
Reflecting on his Christmas letter proclamation, Dolmetsch may revive the one-goldfish-per-lab-member crusade that he never implemented. "Now that I think about it," he mused, "it's not a bad idea." And speaking of ideas, both good and bad, he now has at least one for the book he hopes to write someday: a collected version of all his Christmas letters.
Alissa Poh was a science-writing intern in the Office of Communication & Public Affairs in the School of Medicine.