Department News

MCO Graduate to Open Lab Through the Rowland Institute at Harvard

MCO Graduate to Open Lab Through the Rowland Institute at Harvard

Recent MCO PhD graduate Mackenzie Weygandt Mathis, of Professor Nao Uchida’s lab, has been awarded a highly competitive Rowland Junior Fellowship. The five year fellowship will allow Mathis to set up her own research program and laboratory; providing salaries for herself, complete funding for her research, and provides funds for postdoctoral fellows, as well as dedicated lab space at the Rowland Institute at Harvard.

“I’ve wanted to be a PI since before entering graduate school, but I assumed I would follow the traditional track to get there,” Mathis said. “Last spring, Nao and I were heading to a conference and we had a great conversation in which he suggested I try for fellows positions. So, with his strong support (and support from my DAC), I decided to apply last summer. I am deeply grateful for the strong support of my mentors, and very happy that it worked out.”

Mathis is glad for the opportunity to stay at Harvard and continue working with the MCB department, colleagues at HMS and MCO program, while being able to start an independent group.

“MCO was a great experience for me,” Mathis said. “I found that having colleagues that do very different research than yours can broaden and shape the way you think about your own work.”

“I was very honored to join the Uchida lab in 2013, which was in the process of unraveling the neural circuits that underlie reward prediction errors,” Mathis said. “I wanted to learn from Nao’s expertise in circuit analysis, electrophysiology, and careful use of behavior and I brought my interest in motor control to the table. I am very happy that Nao let me join his lab and that we could merge our interests in what became the foundation for my work going forward.”

“Mackenzie started a completely new project in my laboratory,” said Professor Uchida. “ Her initiative, creativity and fearlessness are outstanding.  She also has the ability to incorporate new techniques quickly and efficiently.”

Mathis will use her funding from the Rowland Institute at Harvard to research motor adaptation, or the brain’s ability to generate internal models the body, which are essential in generating predictions of the outcomes of actions.

“The goal of the laboratory is to reverse engineer the neural circuits that drive adaptive motor behavior,” Mathis said. “We hope that by understanding the neural basis of adaptive motor control we can open new avenues in therapeutic research for neurological disease and provide fundamental insights into brain function.”

Before she begins to set up her lab (which opens in September 2017), Mathis will work as a postdoctoral fellow on a project supported by the Women & the Brain (WATB) Fellowship for Advancement in Brain Science, sponsored by the nonprofit group Project ALS. Almost a decade ago, Project ALS funded Mathis’ first research position, so she very was excited to learn about their fellowship program through WATB.

“This fellowship helps me to bridge the gap between the end of my PhD work and starting at the Rowland,” Mathis said. “I’ll be working in Matthias Bethge’s group at the University of Tübingen in Germany to work on computational tools for analyzing calcium imaging data, and building models of limb-based motor adaptation. I will also continue to work closely with Nao on data I collected in his laboratory. Having a strong analytical toolbox and robust models of limb dynamics and adaptation is crucial for analyzing the type of data that I gathered both in the Uchida lab, and that I will increasingly collect going forward.”

As the head of her own lab, Mathis will step into the role of Principal Investigator and mentor for a new group of postdocs, and will offer advice to any who are interested in pursuing a similar career path to her own. She is particularly interested in offering support to women in neuroscience at any stage of their career.

When asked what she thought got her to this next step in her career, she said, “Be strategic in choosing your lab and your projects. Always listen to your data, don’t merely project your hypothesis onto it. Lastly, build good relationships within your scientific community and, most importantly, love what you do and have fun – doing science is such a privilege, so I try to never take that for granted.”

by Mary Parker