This interview with Dr. Mei Zhen, senior investigator at Sinai Health’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, or LTRI, is part of Behind the Science, a regular series from Sinai Health Foundation that asks some of its brightest and world-leading researchers about what drives their curiosity about the human body in health and illness. Dr. Zhen holds the Larry and Judy Tanenbaum Research Chair in Developmental Neuroscience and her lab investigates the development of synapses in the central nervous system.
What is your area of research and what are you hoping to discover?
My area of research is the architecture and dynamics of an animal mind. We look at how the mind drives the robust and adaptive behaviors that enable its survival and evolution.
What’s been your biggest ‘A-HA’ moment to date?
Identifying the central pattern generators in the C. elegans (a small worm) ventral nerve cord. I learned that there is a design logic for all nervous systems. Being able to peel away that superficial layer and look beyond the enormous morphological differences of different species was a revelation that set me free.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced and why?
I’ve always wanted to play roles at different levels - educator, learner, explorer, creator, mentor, mother, wife, daughter, administrator, friend and colleague. I’ve learned that doing and being all these things is possible but doing it perfectly is a challenge.
What’s been one of your greatest rewards in your career so far?
Even though I’ve had the opportunity to make a few discoveries in my career, I’ve found making an impact of the mind and life of a few truly extraordinary young people has been one of the most awarding aspects of my career.
What is one thing you’d like to accomplish in the next decade?
I’d love to continue to nurture the minds and advance the careers of the new generation of systems neuroscientists, instilling in them the importance of having an open-mind, depth of knowledge, intellectual creativity, independence and moral acuity.
Did you change any of your or your family’s habits as a result of anything you learned from your research?
We set aside time every day to read something, slowly and deeply, on paper, and word by word.
What advice would you have to share with your 19-year old self?
Stop worrying about the future. Work hard and it will turn out in one way or the other.
What is on your bucket list?
To finish a list of books and to do a dance piece choreographed by my daughter.
What would your perfect day be like?
A jog before sunrise, a coffee with BBC breakfast, a few hours of work, a hike by the sunset, dinner, evening reading or work, a bed time before 11 p.m.
Who would you invite, alive or dead, to your dream dinner party?
Barbara McClintock, Rachel Carson, Martha Graham, TS Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Italo Calvino, Marilynn Robison, Alice Munro, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pablo Neruda, Harriet Tubman. Their minds, work, courage and actions transcend in time, history, race and culture.
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