Neurobiologist Florian Engert has been promoted to become a tenured Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University. “Like many things, tenure is probably most important if you do not have it,” he said. “But I’m very happy that it worked out because I can stay in this department with the tremendous support of my colleagues, who have become my good friends. Also, I now have the space and resources to make a real thrust at studying the complete brain of an animal at a single cell resolution in the context of behavior and function. My ultimate goal is to correlate neural function to behavior in order to get closer to answering one of the big unsolved problems in the natural sciences – namely how the behavior of an animal arises from activity in its brain circuitry. ”
Engert has developed an experimental system for addressing these questions, which allows him to observe the activity of all the neurons in the brain of an animal when it detects a visual signal and changes its behavior. He uses the zebra fish because as vertebrates their neural patterns are likely to be similar to mammals and even humans, and also because their embryos and larvae are transparent so he can follow neural activity in real time – thanks to optical technologies he has developed.
MCB Chair Catherine Dulac said the department is absolutely thrilled that Engert has received tenure. “We think Florian’s research is extraordinarily exciting and cutting edge, both in terms of the technology he has developed but also conceptually because his is addressing one of the most difficult and fundamental questions in neuroscience.”
In addition, she notes that Engert is an extraordinary mentor and teacher who consistently earns the highest ranking in student evaluations. He has developed two challenging and unique courses that combine neuroscience and the principles of physics, including one in which undergraduates make a state-of-the art 2 photon microscope from scratch and then use it to perform highly technical experiments. “Florian is also an absolutely wonderful and delightful colleague who works hard as a department citizen,” she adds, “and we expect him to contribute greatly to the Harvard community of scientists, educators, and students.”
Engert came to the MCB Department from the University of California-Berkley in 2002 and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2006. He completed undergraduate work in physics at the Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, and pursued doctoral and post-doctoral studies with Tobias Bonhoeffer at the Max Planck Institute in Munich. He undertook a second postdoctoral post with Mu-Ming Poo at the University of California-San Diego and Berkeley.
While still at the Max Planck Institute, Engert developed a technique for supplementing electrodes with a light-based method for recording from neurons (two-photon laser scanning microscopy). At MCB he has established in vivo electrophysiology and two-photon microscopy imaging in the zebra fish’s central nervous system. He also applied the light-activated protein channelrhodopsin-2 to selectively excite neurons and gage their effect on zebra fish behavior. Combined with functional imaging and behavioral assays, these techniques allow him to monitor and control the underlying neuronal activity that induces fish to respond to certain stimuli and then explore how those stimuli are processed in the brain and how they change behavior.