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Student Q&A: Ben Yang, Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience

Ben Yang

Ben Yang, PhD, recently defended his thesis and graduated from the Northwestern University Interdepartmental Neuroscience (NUIN) PhD Program in September 2020. Yang has flirted with many fields, but settled on behavioral neuroscience — studying the mechanisms that undergird motor learning.

Read a Q&A with Yang below.

Where is your hometown?

I was born in Wenzhou, China. Wenzhou is surrounded by mountains and the East China Sea, therefore relatively isolated and less influenced by dynasty changes in Chinese history. This led to one of the most famous things about my hometown – our dialect “Wenzhounese”, which is generally considered the most difficult dialect to understand in China. It’s more than 1,500 years old and possibly the closest resemblance to the ancient Chinese language.

What are your research interests?

My initial interest in science starts from a child’s questions of “who am I?” and “where do I come from?” Driven by these questions, I have explored different fields of science, including evolution, developmental biology, cancer biology and now neuroscience. My current research interest is how motor learning is encoded in a brain structure called the striatum. Every time when I saw my son suffering from learning new pieces of piano music and my daughter struggling to learn new ice-skating tricks, I kept wondering how these motor skills are encoded in the striatum.

If we know the neural activity ensemble changes in the striatum, can we manually reactivate these ensembles after training, like the hippocampal replay during memory consolidation, to facilitate motor skill consolidation? If we can achieve this, we may even be able to artificially create motor skills by activating neural ensembles without actual training.

What exciting projects are you working on?

My previous project, which is in review in Neuron, studies how fear affects feeding. Currently, I am working on a new project exploring active avoidance learning. Basically, mice are head-fixed on a running wheel allowing imaging of striatum neural activity ensemble changes during behavior. Then an escalating tone was delivered behind the mouse, mimicking predator chasing. The mouse needs to run to a certain speed within a certain time to cancel the tone. If this is not achieved, a mild electrical shock will be delivered to the tail as a punishment. By imaging the neural ensemble changes during this learning process, we are hoping to find the mechanisms of how motor learning is encoded.

What attracted you to your program?

NUIN is an interdisciplinary neuroscience program that encompasses both NU campuses and many departments — it is a big family. The NUIN program provides me with a bigger picture of neuroscience and more opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

It is hard to choose just one best experience. The seminars covering basic science, engineering, and clinics is what I have really enjoyed over the past many years at Feinberg. Recently, I submitted a manuscript to Neuron, which received positive reviews from all three reviewers and required no further experiments, commending the high quality and significance of my work.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

My advisor, thesis committee, NUIN directors, and the big NUIN family have been very supportive during my doctoral training. I really appreciate my advisor, D. James Surmeier, for his trust that allowed me to explore my own interest and his cares about my research, career development and quality of life. He and my thesis committee – Mark Bevan, Indira Raman, and Paul Schumacker – always encouraged me to think of big and important questions. The NUIN directors (Anis Contractor and Geoff Swanson), NUIN office and Department of Neuroscience administrators have all been very helpful. Other NUIN faculty members, particularly Jelena Radulovic, Rajeshwar Awatramani, Liming Li and Richard Miller have all helped me in various ways. To sum it up, the faculty at Feinberg provides a nourishing environment for young scientists to grow.

What do you do in your free time?

I spent my free time with my family, reading books to my kids, playing Lego sets, biking, ice-skating and snowboarding. I hope we will still be able to go snowboarding this winter.

What are your plans for the future?

I recently defended my thesis, written during my time studying Parkinson’s disease and stress disorders in D. James Surmeier’s lab in the Department of Neuroscience. I have now started a joint postdoctoral training in Jones Parker’s lab in the Department of Psychiatry and Anis Contractor’s lab in the Department of Neuroscience, studying neural mechanisms encoding motor skill learning.