What is your scientific trajectory so far, and what are your main scientific interests?
My lab is interested in understanding how the brain generates sophisticated cognition, in health and disease. I worked for quite a long time on the neurobiology of stress, and for the last more than 10 years we have been focusing on understanding social behavior, using rodents as a model organism. We know more and more about how the brain of an individual works, but how the brain perceives and uses information from those that surround us is still a big mystery in Neuroscience. How does the brain catch information from others? How do we perceive the emotions from our conspecifics? How do we use this information to take decisions that have an impact on others? These are questions that guide our curiosity and are deep into our research plans, that we plan to continue at CNC.
What are your most significant scientific contributions so far?
We have been pioneers in working in the “Yin Yang” of social behavior, I mean, aggression and cooperation. We have advanced the field in understanding the neural substrates of pathological aggression and more recently, in demonstrating that we can study complex social decision making in rats. Yes, rats do not only fight but they do help each other, too. How and why an animal decides to help another, at the level of neural circuits, is the question that we are working on currently.
What is the big scientific question you would like to answer?
How brain circuits compute ethologically relevant but uncertain and dynamic information, to adapt to an ever-changing environment.
What makes the CNC an attractive host institution for your group?
I am excited to collaborate with my Neuroscience colleagues, who are international experts on synaptic physiology and molecular approaches to understand brain function. I am convinced we can find very complementary venues of work that will strengthen the systems and behavioral approaches my lab brings to CNC.
My time here has been very short, so I am still discovering more and more what my colleagues are doing. Being in contact with such a multidisciplinary environment is going to be great for me and the people in my lab. I am always curious to learn things that seem far from my area of expertise, and try to find connections and novel venues of possible collaborations.
How can you make CNC a better place to work?
This is a tricky question as so far my experience here tells me that CNC is really an excellent place to work. During these first weeks at CNC, I have been positively surprised on how efficient everyone is. I really appreciate how much everyone is willing to help me landing at my new institution.
Beyond my scientific expertise, which I hope will impact the science and the international visibility of CNC, I have always been a very enthusiastic person and tend to recruit people with contagious enthusiasm for science, too. I have always worked hard to promote a culture of creativity and technological innovation in my lab. I plan to do the same here, and I have some ideas on how to create new shared facilities in the midterm, that will serve everyone at CNC.
How can we improve the way Neuroscience is taught, and prepare students for the future of the field?
I will be responsible for the implementation of a new PhD program in Integrative Neuroscience at CNC, so this is really touching me deep in my current professional motivations. It is our responsibility to train the new generation of scientists, that will advance the field in the next years. Everyone should have a basic knowledge of the state of the art in different Neuroscience topics, but things are moving very fast and it is becoming more and more a multidisciplinary discipline. We can’t just prepare students with what is currently known, but also give them tools to creatively ask new questions and flexibly go beyond what we can currently address. For this, we need to provide the tools to face the unknown. We will, of course, have programming training, and I am also planning to implement a boot camp period, where students will learn basic hardware and electronics skills and how to use and implement the newest open source tools that are revolutionizing neuroscience. I hope the new CNC students coming out of this new PhD program will surprise us with new discoveries in the future.
What are your ideas for better communication between scientists and society?
I have always been really active in communicating the science we do in the lab to society, giving talks for really young kids, to adults, organizing science festivals or talking to either radio, TV or press journalists. I feel science should go where the people are, and I am very proud of my talks at nursery schools showing children that we actually have a brain inside our head, that serves not only to think but also to play, and seeing their faces when they watch a GCaMP neuron flashing for the first time. I also gave talks at bars, or during the Fallas in Valencia, yes, people do have an interest in Science while they are partying, too.
Because of the nature of our subjects of research, our work has a superficial layer that everyone can understand, is really appealing and everyone can relate to. Because of this, I have felt that I have the moral obligation of explaining what we do to everyone. In this manner, we have been advocating that basic animal research is really a need for our society, and make more accessible what we scientists do in our laboratories.
How do you see the future of Neuroscience research? What are the great expectations?
There is a current technological revolution that is speeding up progress in Neuroscience research. If we are clever and combine these technological advances with important questions, we have a real opportunity to have an impact on the wellbeing of society. I want to be a part of this and find real ways of translating impactful basic research on something that make our lives better.
Fun fact about yourself
I have a very international family, at home we speak 3.5 languages daily (Spanish, German, English and some Catalan). However, there is not one language that we all share, so when we talk, we need to talk and translate simultaneously, which makes our cat and dog quite confused, and our son sometimes too. Yes, I have moved quite a lot around Europe, living in Belgium, Switzerland, Portugal (yes, I lived 5 years in Lisbon in the past) and different parts of Spain. To be able to respond to the stereotypes, I had to learn to cook tortilla de patatas, salmorejo,escalibada and, of course, paella. I am now a good Spanish stereotype that can cook all these quite decently, well, my tortillas are the best! I hope to bring some for the next social gathering for you to believe me.