An Expert's Take on a Career in Neuroscience


To some, neuroscience is considered one of the greatest frontiers within the life sciences. The field involves intense, multidisciplinary study of various fields in order to explain the structure and functioning processes of the brain.

The path to becoming a neuroscientist can include extensive study and requires a passion for science.  To find out more, we interviewed Dr. Heike Blockus, an associate research scientist in the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University in New York City, where she studies the fundamental principles of brain development. She obtained her Ph.D. in Neurodevelopment from the Sorbonne University in Paris, France, and her MSc in Molecular Biomedicine from the University of Bonn, Germany.

Blockus shared her thoughts on the neuroscience career path and recent trends in the field, and gave her advice for aspiring neuroscientists.

BioSpace: Before becoming a neuroscientist, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Blockus: I obtained a German Diploma (equivalent MSc) in molecular biomedicine with a focus on chemical biology from the University of Bonn, Germany. The study program was comprehensive: it combined courses in medicine with life sciences with extensive practical coursework, focusing on four main modules from human genetics and pathology (over chemical biology to infectious diseases and pharmacology). I cannot overstate how much this in-depth practical work excellently prepared me for my career as a bench scientist, throughout my Ph.D. and post-Ph.D. career.

BioSpace: What is a neuroscientist?  Why did you decide to become one?

Blockus: Neuroscientists study the brain, which is a relatively new field of study in our modern understanding, perhaps born about 30 years or so. However, the ‘Father of Neuroscience’ is often regarded as Ramon y Cajal, a Spanish neuroanatomist who around the turn of the century (1906), laid the fundamental groundwork for understanding the nervous system. Many neuroscientists today still rely on his exquisitely detailed drawings of neurons in different brain regions – a true artistic masterwork.

I think I have an intrinsic attraction to things that challenge me, and during my MSc courses on Neurobiology, it bothered me that I felt the field was insurmountably complex, and I struggled to make sense of it. Neurons (brain cells) are absolutely fascinating and unique cells in our organism – they are highly polarized and compartmentalized, with a sending and receiving station. Their sophisticated way of forming networks and communication has always fascinated me.

BioSpace: What do you think are the primary differences between neuroscience and other scientific fields of study?

Blockus: Neuroscience is an extremely multidisciplinary field. It comprises genetic, molecular, biochemical, physiological, anatomical, mathematical and psychological approaches. In fact, in my opinion, one of the biggest challenges neuroscience faces is to unify knowledge acquisition across such immensely different levels and scales of investigation. Whether such a unification of theory and experiment from the atomic to the organism scale (as happened in physics in the last century) is desirable or even possible, is a question of active debate in the field.

BioSpace: What are some of the top benefits to being a neuroscientist?

Blockus: I feel immensely privileged to be a neuroscientist. The brain, one could argue, is one of the last remaining frontiers of the 21st century. The brain is one of the most complex objects in the universe, possibly why its study has become such a vast multidisciplinary enterprise. The brain controls how we sense, breathe, perceive and interact with our environment. Understanding brain evolution, for example, holds keys to understanding what makes us uniquely humans. With so much at stake, one of the biggest benefits of being a neuroscientist is that a lot of open, but relevant questions remain in understanding how brain function goes awry in neurological disorders. Gaining fundamental insight into brain development and function will give us a unique opportunity to solve some of the big remaining challenges our society faces from a health perspective.

BioSpace: Have you noticed any new trends related to the field of neuroscience?

Blockus: Absolutely – the field is evolving extremely rapidly with new technologies, especially in optics/microscopy opening up new ways to interrogate brain function during behavior in model organisms. One of the biggest breakthrough discoveries in the last decade was the advent of “optogenetics”, which allows us, in a nutshell, to control the activity of neurons with light. This allows neuroscientists to turn specific brain circuits on or off during behaviors, and in some cases allows to establish a relationship of causality between brain structure and function. While this is certainly an exciting development, it also comes with certain drawbacks. Much of neuroscience is now very much, large-data driven, with less emphasis on hypothesis-driven research. In my own research, I try to combine molecular approaches with the recording of brain circuits during behavior to gain mechanistic insight into how and why circuits behave the way they do.

BioSpace: How competitive is it to become a neuroscientist? 

Blockus: I would say highly competitive. There is no shortage of smart, ambitious and creative neuroscientists out there, all across the globe. But that’s also what makes it fun, there is no limit in the type of collaborations that can be fostered. However, the translation of basic neuroscience insight into clinical or pharmaceutical outcomes has proven exceedingly difficult, which stands to underscore that our understanding of brain function is still fragmented.

With many pharmaceutical companies having faced large obstacles in successfully targeting the brain for therapeutics, there is tension between the large need for answers and the high risk/high failure rate. The marketability of neuroscientists outside of academia will also depend on how much of the rodent “circuit neuroscience” and optogenetics will be applicable to address societal needs in humans.

BioSpace: What advice would you give to aspiring neuroscientists?

Blockus: Develop grit, and understand that (as James Joyce said), mistakes or failures are a vital part of discovery. Find an advisor who will listen to you and your ideas and thoughts, no matter how far or short along your career path you are. I have found this crucial to building scientific confidence early on starting in undergrad.

Try to network and attend conferences, even if you feel like you don’t have a lot to contribute. Established people in the field will see it as a privilege to interact with you. Don’t become a specialist too early – it’s great if you can amass a multitude of experiences as it will always not only fuel your growth, but also enrich your skillset and approaches and might give you a valuable perspective that differs from “niche” experts.

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