Nanthia Suthana is an Associate Professor at UCLA. In this conversation, we talk about her research using invasive brain recordings from humans, how the technologies have changed and what might happen in the future. We also talk about how she runs her lab, how to learn as a PI, and what Nanthia enjoys about mentoring students and postdocs.
We had some minor audio issues, so Nanthia switched her recording setup twice during the conversation. Sound should still be good though.
Support the show: https://geni.us/bjks-patreon
00:00: Was it good that Nanthia finished school so young?
01:27: How invasive recordings in humans have changed over the past 15 years
10:45: The future of invasive recordings in humans
19:29: Mentorship in academia
30:01: Learning as a PI
36:02: Book or paper more people should read
40:53: Something Nanthia wishes she'd learnt sooner
45:42: Advice for PhD students and postdocs
References and links
Nanthia's episode in Stories of Women in Neuroscience:
Episodes w/ Matthias Stangl and Gareth Barnes:
Boto et al (2018). Moving magnetoencephalography towards real-world applications with a wearable system. Nature.
Feinsinger et al (2022). Ethical commitments, principles, and practices guiding intracranial neuroscientific research in humans. Neuron.
Gill et al (2023). A pilot study of closed-loop neuromodulation for treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder. Nature Communications.
Hafting, Fyhn, Molden, Moser & Moser (2005). Microstructure of a spatial map in the entorhinal cortex. Nature.
O'Keefe & Dostrovsky (1971). The hippocampus as a spatial map: preliminary evidence from unit activity in the freely-moving rat. Brain research.
Preston, Kuper-Smith & Ehrsson (2015). Owning the body in the mirror: The effect of visual perspective and mirror view on the full-body illusion. Scientific Reports.
Sacks (1985). The man who mistook his wife for a hat.
Scoville & Milner (1957). Loss of recent memory after bilateral hippocampal lesions. Journal of neurology, neurosurgery, and psychiatry.
Stangl, Topalovic, ... & Suthana (2021). Boundary-anchored neural mechanisms of location-encoding for self and others. Nature.
Stangl, Maoz & Suthana (2023). Mobile cognition: imaging the human brain in the ‘real world’. Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
Topalovic et al (2023). A wearable platform for closed-loop stimulation and recording of single-neuron and local field potential activity in freely moving humans. Nature Neuroscience.
(This is an automated transcript with many errors)
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: [00:00:00] Yeah, I mean, as I kind of because you did the stories of women in neuroscience, we don't need to go over too much of your biography, because I guess you already covered that at length there. But I was just curious, you mentioned kind of one thing that I thought was kind of interesting. And I thought we could maybe start there.
You said that kind of you finished school very young. And then you Quickly, we're kind of lost and didn't really know what you were doing. I'm just curious, like what the, would, do you think it would have been better if you'd like, you know, taken a bit longer for school and that kind of stuff? Or do you think it was kind of good to, to finish that very quickly and then kind of have that little crisis fairly early on and work through it?
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, you know, I don't know. I don't know. I mean, uh, in hindsight, it's hard to say, right? That that process could have got be the reason why I am where I am today. So, um, you know, it's hard to say. I think if I would have found this path with a little bit less, Anxiety and [00:01:00] stress, meaning starting a little later, that would be ideal. But, uh, it didn't happen that way, and I still, I still got here, so it all worked out for the best. But yeah, yeah, as you mentioned, I, you know, I graduated high school at 16, which I think was very young for many reasons, like socially and emotionally, and uh, that, that started a, you know, a journey to self discovery, which ultimately led me to neuroscience.
So, it all worked out in the end.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. Um, I mean, I want to talk, you know, mainly about. invasive recordings in humans in particular, uh, I mean what you do. Maybe can we start, where did you, when was the first time you started working with invasive recordings in humans maybe?
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, I was a graduate student. I was in my, I want to say, maybe second or third year. And, uh, working with Dr. Itzhak Fried at UCLA and Arne Ekstrom, who was a postdoc at the time. And we were recording, you know, single neuron activity [00:02:00] in, uh, patients who have had implanted electrodes in the hospital. And, uh, I'm still doing that kind of work today, as well as other type of invasive recordings.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Um, especially when I talk about like how these invasive recordings changed over time, so maybe I'm curious like what was the status then, like what could you, what kind of things could you do with invasive recordings then, and maybe also what kinds of patients were you working with, and then we can maybe use that as a basis for like, Discuss how it changed over time and
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, it's quite different, but back then, you know, we, we had really... Two ways of recording invasively. One is in the operating room, which I didn't do so much of. And the other is in the hospital, um, in what's called the Epilepsy Monitoring Unit. So these are patients with epilepsy who are implanted with electrodes for one week, two weeks, for as long as it takes for them to capture enough seizures so they can determine where the seizures, you know, are coming from. And during this time, these patients will volunteer here for [00:03:00] research studies where We would go into the hospital room, take our laptops, and basically show them pictures on a screen, or have them do tasks while we're recording from microwires that can record single unit activity. So that was what it was like back then.
I think it's, you know, changed quite a bit to now. The technology is leading that way. The technology is improving. We're no longer limited to operating rooms and hospital settings in patients who are either undergoing surgery or just under undergone surgery. So these devices are now chronically implanted, which extends them. into the realm of everyday life. So these patients have these devices implanted as they're going about their, you know, everyday activities, and so at home, uh, studies are feasible, bringing them into the lab, uh, for studies that is now possible, and, um, yeah, so I think it's just, it's evolved to the point where we can ask questions about naturalistic human behavior, [00:04:00] uh, in more ecologically valid settings.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I mean is it still today mainly epilepsy patients or are there other kinds of patients that also have
Nanthia Suthana: No, so that's another, that's another big change is that, you know, majority of studies are done in epilepsy patients, but now there are patients, you know, with psychiatric disorders that are implanted with these electrodes, depression, PTSD, OCD, you know, others. So it's becoming more diverse in terms of the patient population in, in which we are using these types of recordings,
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I'm assuming I mean also with the psychiatric cases that that's you know Only if it's so bad that nothing else seemed to work or are
Nanthia Suthana: right?
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay, so is that I don't know is that like a common?
Nanthia Suthana: No, I mean, in the case of PTSD, it's, it's quite difficult to find these patients that are qualified for these studies because they have to have, you know, undergone treatment, various other forms of treatment. And actually that's, that's one of the challenges is [00:05:00] that not everybody gets adequate, you know, treatment to the point where they're, they're really offered all of these treatments.
So for our PTSD study, for instance, uh, we have to find individuals that have basically tried many, many treatments and those have failed for them. So it's a smaller population than otherwise
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: find that I mean I've heard from some people who work with Um, clinical populations that one of the problems often clinical populations is that they're, you know, the, the disorder, however you call it, um, the, the, the reason kind of why the eligible for the study is often the reason why they're not particularly good participants, because, you know, if you have certain psychiatric conditions, you might not respond very well or not turn up or that kind of stuff.
And Christie also have that with, uh, I mean, because you have such a small population of people you can access, is that like a heightened problem for you?
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, I mean that is true. I mean we, we definitely try to recruit individuals who are highly motivated to contribute to research, [00:06:00] and that is usually a very important thing in terms of ensuring that they'll be willing to do these things, you know, even when things are really difficult in their personal lives. But yeah, it is, it is definitely challenging.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: So you had a paper out recently in Ancient Neuroscience, uh, about a kind of new system you developed. Um, for me, as someone who doesn't do this kind of research, it wasn't sometimes entirely clear what the, you know, I don't know exactly what the, how these technologies work or what the. Um, precise advancements of that was, I mean, you obviously described some of it, but I'm curious whether you could put a bit more context to kind of what, what you did there, what you developed and how that kind of what the improvement is there compared to previous, uh, methods.
Nanthia Suthana: So that paper you're referring to, it was regarding the neurostat system, which is a handheld system. Device that is made of implant sized circuits, meaning that it could be minimized to be even smaller and implantable and essentially fit in the size [00:07:00] of a pill. Um, so this system, which is handheld, it's wearable, so people can walk around with it on and it can record multi channels up to 256 local field potential activity and 32 channel single unit activity. And so this is a major, you know, advance because up until. You know, this device, the systems that record single neuron activity, their cart size, they're very bulky and big and heavy and patients and participants, they're, uh, they have to be sitting down and tethered to the system. So the Neurostack enables basically recording of single neuron activity during walking. And, um, we recorded some neurons, you know, we showed that we could record neuron activity while an individual is walking back and forth in their hospital room. And the second sort of major advantage, there are others, but another major advantage is that it's full duplex, so it can record this activity and stimulate at the same time.
And it can do this in real time based on a [00:08:00] neurophysiological feature that you, you know, for example, the phase of an ongoing theta oscillation. And it could. Stimulate at a particular phase, and it's fully programmable so you can stimulate with any kind of waveform, any pattern, uh, any combination of electrodes.
So it's really a scientist. Um, you know, ideal tool and that, and that's really where it stemmed from. It was a conversation between neuroscientists, myself and engineers and telling them essentially what would be the ideal tool for scientists that could help us not only understand the human brain, but develop therapies for patients that are, you know, more effective. And um, so that, yeah, that was the main advantage of the system.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I mean, for example, the, you know, I talked to Matias Strangel about your nature paper, that was still with the old system. Was that already, because you're also
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah. So that's the old system. Right. Right. So, so. Everything other than, you know, the neurostatic right now is, cannot record single neuron activity. It can record, you know, basically [00:09:00] oscillatory activity or intracranial EEG. And those are the devices that are implanted in several thousand people right now who are... So that's a major advantage that we can even record intracranial EG during movement, during walking, during mobile behaviors. The neurostat, however, advances further beyond that by allowing, you know, single neuron activity. These patients are still confined to a hospital setting, but they could walk, they could walk in the hallways, they could walk in their room. Uh, and so you can, you know, single neuron recordings and freely moving animals, which is a very large, you know, part of the field.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I'm, I'm reminded kind of, if I remember correctly, the, the, the story, for example, of play sales is that, you know, You couldn't record from a moving rat, and then they developed that, and then it didn't take that long for play cells to be discovered after that. So it's kind of really exciting to imagine, like, all the stuff you can do now with this system in...
I mean, I guess the main advantage is, you know, [00:10:00] now you have humans who can, like, tell you what's going on. Uh,
at least some things.
Nanthia Suthana: And be instructed to do something very quickly,
right, so we can, yeah, so that's, that's, it's very exciting for me,
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Have you already started using that for, for new studies on, uh, kind of...
Nanthia Suthana: We have one that is being designed right now and piloted, piloted, and hope to get some data in the next few months, yeah.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay, but you can't say what topic it is, or...
Nanthia Suthana: Oh, topic is, it's on what you would probably expect based on what you just said, you know, can we find place cells or grid cells and can we tie them to memory and human experience and human recollections that are reported,
that sort of
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: that's pretty cool. Um, yeah, I mean, it's, it's. It feels a bit silly now hearing you talk about kind of what you can do now that you couldn't do before and then ask about like, what's missing what you'd like to develop in the future and that kind of stuff. Um,
but yeah, so curious, like [00:11:00] what are kind of the big, I don't know, maybe the bottlenecks to certain things.
Maybe even now you see like, I mean, we want to do this study, but we still can't do it because of X or Y kind of what are the, the big challenges maybe that you'd like solved.
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, I mean, there are actually many, uh, and So, you know, there's still lots of things we have to improve, um, one being just the user friendliness and of these systems so that more people can, you know, enter this field using the system. So it's a very small group of people doing this right now. Um, we also can always do better with the accuracy of synchronization between these signals and peripheral signals that we capture like movement, uh, of the body movement of the eyes and. Other biometric recordings, we record heart rate, skin conductance, respiration. I mean, you name it, on body wearables are advancing at the same time as these neural recording devices. So, integrating those is a big challenge and getting the synchronization accurate. Uh, another thing we [00:12:00] can do better on is developing better wearables that, you know, are easy to use at home by the patients themselves. User friendly, again. And how to synchronize that remotely without a scientist or researcher there, and then doing better with the wearables. We have a product. We have a grant proposal that was submitted earlier this year to integrate with the neuro stack some biochemical wearables, so they've developed these smart watches that can sample biochemicals in the sweat, you know, such as cortisol, adrenaline, and so we are hoping to, you know, add these kind of features, enhance the neuro stack with these kind of features. So that we can look at, you know, various, um, states, uh, emotional states, and other things.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. I mean, there are. The, um, kind of virtual reality, I don't really exactly want to call it a boom because I guess not many people are using it right now, but I mean, Apple [00:13:00] introducing that kind of product from, to me, it seems from someone from the outside, it seems like that's like a huge benefit to the community.
I mean, I remember I did some stuff with like virtual reality headset a while ago with like. You know, not new recordings, but, um, in a, in a lab. And I think they still use like a system that costs like 9, 000 or something that was like this. Old clunky tech that was developed. And I think at the time Oculus Rift came out and they were like, well, we might as well just buy two because they're so cheap compared to what the old stuff is.
Is I'm curious, like, I mean, I'd also, for example, imagine that they're going to have really amazing eye tracking and AR integrations, that kind of stuff. Is that, have you, have you tried that already? Like the Apple thing? Because that's not out yet, right?
Nanthia Suthana: Uh, I haven't tried it. No, I haven't tried it, but we, it's definitely on our radar, and we're excited to see how it works, and see if we can use it. Um, so yeah, that is a big Potential advancement is integrating the virtual reality [00:14:00] and augmented reality headsets, eye tracking headsets, and you know that, so that's something we're following. I remember when I first started my lab, we had a Google Cardboard, you know, and, uh,
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: What's the Google Cardboard?
Nanthia Suthana: Oh, Google Cardboard, it's literally a piece of cardboard that's folded to fit a
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Oh, yes. I remember
Nanthia Suthana: So it's, it's using, you know, it's virtual reality, but, you know, basically using your phone. It's like, I don't know, really cheap, five dollars or ten, I don't know, something really cheap. And, um, you know, now we have these really fancy headsets with eye tracking and AR. And so I think the challenge there is still going to be synchronization. So how much can I As a developer, use these systems to get it working well with the neural recording devices, that's to be seen. So, I don't know how easy that will be, and that's going to be the main bottleneck.
And can we get the synchronization? You know, these neural signals are recording at 30, 000 times per second, right? [00:15:00] Can we, how good of a synchronization can we get with these signals? That's going to be the major challenge.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: mean, I'm curious, like one thing about these, I mean, so this is all still in patients, right? Um, is there any, do you think this is gonna happen or under which conditions in normal people that you can actually implant these things or find some sort of, yeah, I mean, some sort of way of recording, um, activity in normal people, or I mean, in healthy people.
I mean, I did an episode with. Um, Gareth Barnes about the new MEG systems. So that's, you know, there's some way of getting, yeah, neural signals from healthy people when they're moving that kind of stuff. But, um, at a, you know, invasive single cell, do you think that's ever going to happen in, in healthy people or is it,
Nanthia Suthana: I mean, even though it seems really far, and maybe impossible now, I'm not one to say anything is impossible with what I've sort of just seen in my small lifetime, which is that... That the development of a new technology can be totally [00:16:00] catches off, you know, guard and unexpected and that can completely change the field, you know, overnight. So, um, I'm definitely not one to say that that that's impossible, you know, that if we can develop the right method or tool to, um, to do this, I will say it's very going to be very challenging because, you know, these signals, um, recording them. Especially from deep brain areas, non invasively, it's got many, many challenges, and, but like you mentioned, the, the OPM MEG systems, or, you know, other systems that are starting to work towards that, that may be possible one day, so, who knows.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: and, but, but invasively in healthy people that's just because of
Nanthia Suthana: in healthy people. Yeah. You, you gotta always take into account the risk with surgery. Until we can do brain surgery without like basically no risk, then maybe that is possible, right? But that there's always that risk. And why would you put someone through that kind of risk if they don't need it?
That's, that's always the question, ethically speaking,
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: [00:17:00] Yeah. I mean, I guess some people are interested in like any kind of potential improvement for normal people or whatever, but I feel like that's pretty far off. I don't know what you,
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah. I mean, I, I think it is, uh, I think there's so many people that have, You know, problems, brain disorders that need this and, um, focusing on those problems, I think are, at least for my work, are more important to think about than how can, how can we enhance sort of normal function, especially with a risky procedure like
It doesn't seem, yeah,
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: especially like, how do you improve these things in healthy people? That's like one of the first big questions.
Nanthia Suthana: right? I invasively, so that, of course, is of interest of mine as well. How can we. Can we improve healthy function non invasively, or can we improve, you know, function even in those who are not healthy non invasively, that's always going to be the first choice than, than doing it invasively.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Hmm. Yeah. So just a kind of slightly random question, [00:18:00] maybe, but I'm curious, like, do you have any opinion on what the people at Neuralink are doing?
Nanthia Suthana: So I know, I, I, I'm familiar with the technology, you know, I, I knew, um, I met with the scientist, Dr. Saves, who, who developed the, the sort of, Original technology. So I'm familiar with it and it has a lot of advantages. Uh, and so, you know, by all means, I'm excited to see a lot of resources put in this area and it's definitely had an impact on the interest in this type of approach.
Um, so there's a lot of benefit there and if they can, you know, if they can reach even part of their goals, I think it's going to, you know, be, um, advantageous for the rest of the field.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay. So it's like, I mean, because to me it's, you know, you hear about every occasionally they have some press conference and, uh, it seems like a lot of people deride kind of what they do and the goals that they have. And then I always, it seems like from the engineers, there's often a kind of, no, there's some solid stuff they're doing here.
So it sounds to me kind of, you're saying like [00:19:00] basically the engineering side of like, they're, they're doing good stuff. It's just what, what they're going to achieve with it maybe.
Nanthia Suthana: exactly. Exactly. That, that part may be, um, you know, marketing or overblown, but, uh, the engineering aspect, you know, I'm always a fan of like, you know, try to reach for the stars. If you get to the clouds, it's still better than nothing. So I think on the engineering side, putting that many resources, how much resources into advancing the technology is going to be positive.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: You know, as you know, I talked to Matthias Stranger and he spoke very highly of you and how you're on your lab. Um, so, uh, I thought, uh, might be good to hear about how you do that or maybe how you try and do it because I've definitely also heard of people who say that they work in labs that are, uh, not particularly nice to work in.
So I think a lot of people can probably learn about, uh, Some of the things you do, uh, obviously I want to make this question slightly more specific than how do you run a good lab? You mentioned in the stories of women in neuroscience that [00:20:00] that mentorship is kind of one of your favorite aspects of your job.
Uh, of what you do. I thought maybe we could start there. Maybe what do you try and do as a mentor with your, let's say, grad student or postdoc and kind of.
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, I think what you, the word try is definitely the key word there. There are many things I think that are important that I could list, you know, like communication and aligning expectations and, you know, defining roles. But for me, in terms of what I strive to do with mentorship is, uh, you know, really every person is a little different and learning. Each mentee's strength and area that they may want to improve is really important for me to help mentor them. Uh, so I try to really, you know, find where, where are the things that they want to, you know, Improve upon and what kind of support can I give them? So the kind of work in my lab is very [00:21:00] interdisciplinary.
It really cannot be done by one person. And so I try to maintain a lab with a lot of support staff and in different areas. So they have different strengths. So we have a, you know, for instance, we have a VR programmer, we have a, you know, designer three d um, artist. We have a engineer. We have, you know, um, A lot of folks who can help the, uh, you know, graduate students or postdocs with their projects, they're not feeling like they have to do it all themselves. And I think that is really critical. And then teamwork, you know, related to that, right? So trying to create a culture, an environment that is really putting teamwork at, at a forefront. So everybody's very helpful to each other. Um, Cooperative and not competitive and that really, I believe, starts with the PI. And, uh, so I really, you know, try to promote that kind of environment and that culture. And then what else? Just trying to really be there for each individual. [00:22:00] It's been a rough few years, the last few years. And, um, being flexible and supportive. Having the mental space in my own life, you know, self care to be able to support other individuals, I think is, is critical.
So, I'm still learning a lot about how to be a good mentor. I think each person teaches me several new things because mentoring each person is different. Um, and I'm also being mentored in some ways by these individuals. So, it's a, you know, it's like a, it's a relationship that we're building. Yeah.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I'm curious, just because I guess I'm, I'm not a mentor, but a mentee, what makes for a good mentee?
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, what do I look for in folks that, uh, we bring on into the team? I think most importantly is, are they a team player? Are they, are they going to be not just, you know, focused on necessarily their own stuff and what they need, but are they willing to help others? And like I said, that goes back [00:23:00] to what I mentioned about the work that we do. And that no one person can do all aspects of the, of the project. And so we need this teamwork. Teamwork is, is the core of every project that we, that we do. So are they a team player? Are they willing to, you know, help others? And then, you know, do they have some sort of resilience in terms of being able to overcome challenges, small or big?
Uh, in terms of like, technical challenges, or when things don't work. I mean, science is, any, anybody in science knows, like, at least if you're, I think if you're doing science right, most of the time you're failing at things, or things aren't working, right? Otherwise, you're not taking enough risk. So, in this day to day, in the day to day of what we do, there are a lot of roadblocks, challenges, things aren't working, and are they the kind of person that can really try, you know, put in the effort to [00:24:00] overcome these things, whether it's do it themselves or get people to help them or, you know, communicate the challenge. So are they, are they good troubleshooters? Are they good at solving problems? And adaptable and flexible and because we don't really know what problems there will be when we try to do these things, so.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: How do you, how do you assess that? I mean, uh, you know, if you have an interview and you say, are you a team player? I think there
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, no.
I don't say, right, right, right, right, I don't ask that, actually, that's not, that's uh, not, not the best way, I think, to assess that. Um, I, I have a lot of conversations with these people, you know, I get to know them, I think that's really important to get to know people, and then I love stories, like, you know, give me, tell me about, um, Some examples.
Tell me stories. What challenges have you had in your research project? And go into detail about it. How did you overcome it? What didn't work? What did work? You know? So when you, when you start to listen to these stories, you get to know the person, right? And then you, you start to get to get a sense.[00:25:00]
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: That's funny. It's just, I just realized that there was just a, there was a parallel to like, you know, the whole like, question of like, journal impact and all that kind of stuff and then people say like, well, how am I supposed to assess the quality of a paper if I don't use a journal name and then like, well, you read the paper
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, you
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: and it seems like it's similar, you,
Nanthia Suthana: you use your brain. Yeah,
you think. Use your brain.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. But, um, yeah, I'm curious just because I, um, kind of a little bit by accident ended up spending quite a lot of time with Matthias talking about like postdoc applications and that kind of stuff. And, um, one thing kind of he mentioned, for example, that. Surprised me to some extent, and by extension, probably also some, some of the listeners who are in similar position to me, um, was that he first just like mailed people and said like, Hey, I like a few people and said like, I think you do cool stuff.
And this is kind of how I'd fit in. And then that he also contacted people who [00:26:00] did things that were in many ways, quite different from what they did before. So for example, he had experience with FMRI in. Uh, age, I think it was fMRI for aging, um, in particular in terms of like spatial navigation and memory.
And then, I mean, basically almost none of that is, for example, in the Nature paper that you two did together. Um, so I'm just, I mean, he, he very much said like, well, you'd, you know, it's a strength that you have a different perspective you can bring to the lab and that kind of stuff. I'm curious, like, what's, uh, to maybe hear your side of, of that conversation I had with
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, and I'll say, you know, so I first met Matthias at SFN. That was our in person interview at that time. He gave me a little short, you know, presentation on his research, and then we just talked. We are at a coffee shop, you know, just talking. And I pretty much knew right away that I wanted to recruit this person into my lab.
And as you said, he had no... experience doing any of the recordings that we do, right? But that absolutely did
not matter to me. Um, what I [00:27:00] saw in Matias was number one, absolutely, genuinely nice person, team player, no question, no question. And number two, he, Can solve problems like, and he can, he can pretty much do anything he wants.
Right. So, you know, he, with the, with the right determination, you know, like that, that was also very evident to me. So yeah, it's, it's the, the experience is not necessarily what's important. It's, it's how committed and resilient are you to being able to solve, solve. An unknown, right? That's what we're doing in science.
That's the goal. The goal is not to do just these incremental, you know, improvements in our knowledge, right? We want to make these revolutionary discoveries. No one came, came to become, no one's in science to just, you know, we're here to make change, right? And so, that's, that's what I saw in him, and that's what I try to look for in folks that I recruit in the lab. And he, look, he submitted his first paper. He [00:28:00] collected all the data and submitted his first paper to Nature in under a year. I mean, he's, he's amazing.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, that's the new bar now, I'm
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, well, oh gosh, I know. I feel for I feel for anybody else that comes into my lab, you know. And, and I also make another point about his study, like, his, his study that we ended up doing was not what we had planned to do originally, and this maybe will touch upon some to postdocs is that it was a totally sort of side out of the box idea that Matias had and came to me with very, uh, sort of unusual and not something we would normally do.
And luckily I had the insight to say. Okay, let's drop everything else and do this, right? This is that good of an idea, and yeah, it's really risky, and it might not work at all, and we won't see anything, but who cares about that, right? So, taking those risks and being open and [00:29:00] flexible in your research, especially during the postdoc period, and you know, unexpected opportunities or results may come, and they can often lead to breakthroughs, right?
So, not being afraid to take those risks, I think, is
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: but I mean, what would, you know, to some extent, I wonder whether, you know, what I mean, I don't want to focus this conversation too much on Matias, but I guess it's just the example we're using right now. But, you know, as a, as a postdoc, you know, if it doesn't work out at all, I mean, that is,
Nanthia Suthana: Right. Well, we still were doing the other project, right? We didn't completely drop it. We temporarily, you know, refocused. But we were still going to run this other project, which is still a fantastic project. And that way, you know, there's a little bit less risk in that you have, you know, multiple things going on.
And I think that's also good advice.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: so it's the kind of fairly standard, uh, one risky, one safe
Nanthia Suthana: Yes, exactly. We do that in the lab, for sure.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay. [00:30:00] Um, you know, as a PI obviously when you, when you start as a pi, you are not really trained to be one. I mean, you might have supervised someone here or there. Um, there's a little bit of the, the Peter principle going on, you know, where everyone gets promoted to the level of incompetence, uh, where you are.
Uh, it's, it's a bit different, but you know, you are, you're good as a, as a PhD student, so you become a postdoc, then you're good as a postdoc. So you become a PI and then you have to do things that you didn't really have to do before. So I'm curious kind of how. I mean, how do you do that kind of learning of skills that's very, also quite different from what you have to learn as a PhD student often, right, because that's often a technical thing that's, you know, read the book or the paper or whatever.
Nanthia Suthana: I mean, I think that goes back to my comment about being adaptable and being f Resilient, right? So I, I feel like, you know, folks that are really successful in this, or at least in my experience, are folks that can adapt, right? So, and are, and are constantly trying to learn and improve, right? So what [00:31:00] I'm doing now, yeah, the skills that I need to be good at now really have nothing to do with the ones that I learned in grad school. Um, and so, yeah, I think that that's really important is, is being able to. Work on the skill of adaptability, flexibility and learning, like constantly learning every day, I'm learning something new and my job right now is mentorship and, you know, supervising and providing the funding and the resources for these brilliant people to do what they do. So, you know, and that's the, those are the skills that I work on every day. Um, but, uh, you're, you're right there that there's not training, no training for that. Sadly.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: yeah. Is there some sort of like PI training or something like,
Nanthia Suthana: I mean, there
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: heard of some places where you have like a PI mentor or that kind of thing.
Nanthia Suthana: I mean, I definitely learned through observation of watching my mentors and PIs, and each one had a different strength, and I tried to emulate those [00:32:00] strengths. And I also sought out some career development workshops, and, you know, they have these training sessions for these kinds of skills, like, you know, how to build a lab, and I think those are very useful. So yeah, putting some effort and time into learning these kinds of things formally or, or through observation I think is important.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay. Um, you mentioned something on the stories of women in neuroscience podcast that I thought was kind of interesting because you, I think you were asked about like a challenge or something. And then you mentioned it, but you didn't explain how you overcame it then. And then the conversation moved on.
So you were basically I think you said one thing that was very difficult for you was that you're you see yourself as Someone who's quite shy and so the networking thing was quite difficult, especially maybe as a woman in a quite male dominated field. So yeah, you mentioned that year, but you didn't say how.
Nanthia Suthana: I didn't say how, like, how, meaning how I worked, worked on it
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, exactly. It was just like, [00:33:00] oh, that was a problem. Um, so I'm curious,
Nanthia Suthana: maybe because it's maybe because it's still a problem and it's something I'm
working on still. I don't have a solution. Yeah, I mean, it's, it's, networking has always been a major challenge for me and it's funny because that's pretty much like a majority of my job now. Uh, but I think, you know, I don't know if this helps at all, but it gets easier even, it gets easier in a way that doesn't necessarily have to do with me so much. Yes, I needed to work on myself and learn how to. You know, there are ways to help you network better, and those kind of things, like workshops, I've done those, but I think part of it, it gets solved a little bit as you go ahead, um, as long as you just show up, you just, you know, show up and listen, right?
Those are the two, two things I think that are really important in networking is like doing a lot of active listening, where you're listening to people meeting new people and really Thank you. Um, and you know, not [00:34:00] distracted and, you know, having just genuine relationships, right? Um, but, but because I'm such a shy, introverted person, that, that definitely is challenging. And so I've had to like, sort of, you know, okay, no, I'm gonna, I'm gonna go to this event, even though I don't want to right now, or, you know.
Force myself to do these things, but what I was saying is that it does get easier because you start to make friends, right? You start to have all these friends and when, when I'm not, I'm not shy when I'm around my friends and my family. So once you start to get to know people and you have these relationships and you see them regularly multiple times per year even, then it just becomes easy.
Then it becomes like a reunion every conference or whatever. So, Um, it gets easier. To those, those who are really shy and introverted and don't have a lot of friends in science, I will say it gets easier once you start to make those friends. So, you know, maybe just focus on one or two relationships if it's difficult and then over time you accumulate these relationships and it gets easier.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: And at some point you get postdocs mailing you so you can then [00:35:00] just,
Nanthia Suthana: Right,
so you don't have to, yeah. And that, that does happen almost every day. So, which is great.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: It really isn't that much.
Nanthia Suthana: It is that much. I don't, I don't know that people, I definitely didn't realize this as a graduate student postdoc that you get multiple emails per day from people who are interested, which is a huge privilege and, um, yeah, just trying to navigate through those.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. I mean, yeah, that's, it sounds like a, like a good problem to
Nanthia Suthana: It's a good problem to have. I
would much rather it this way, yes. But I also feel for those on the other end when you can't respond right away or you even forget to respond, you know,
it's, it's tough, it's tough.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, I guess it's particularly because you're so used to it. There's maybe at some point you can also kind of forget what it's like to be the person mailing a PI and being nervous and reading your email like twenty times before you send it and
Nanthia Suthana: Exactly. And waiting for that response every day, yeah. Well, I
remember. I remember what it's like.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: That's good.[00:36:00]
A book or paper that you think more people should read. This can be something very famous, something completely not famous. Um, just something it, I don't know, makes you think like, Oh, this is such a cool thing that I
Nanthia Suthana: Oh, that's tough. That's actually a very tough question. I mean, I came into this field reading about certain patients in case studies, Oliver Sacks books, Brenda Milner's work. So, you know, I have a bias, I guess I, I would recommend those original papers from way back then, um, describing, you know, hms uh, condition of not being able to remember or form new memories for events in his life.
Like those kinds of cases, they're, they just absolutely fascinated me. And, you know, and, and especially when they write it in a way that a non-scientist can understand, you know, like, how could you not? totally be intrigued by this experience of this person's having just because of a brain, you know, some brain [00:37:00] damage or a disorder. We, it's like, when I read that, it's like we, I have to be part of the journey to try to figure out how to help, you know, or figure out what's going on in the brain. It just amazed me.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Did you ever consider working with these kind of patients?
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah, no, no I have and um, you know, and I do still. I work with basically epilepsy patients that without HM would have gotten these, uh, surgeries. So, luckily, they're not getting these
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah, but then they're not that interesting, are they? Like nothing against the people, but it's not as interesting as someone
Nanthia Suthana: well, you know, they do have episodes, right, of amnesia. In fact, I've had one myself, so, you know, I've had a personal experience with amnesia.
I mean, I've had a little bit of experience with that particular experience, but yeah, I mean, working
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: that something you can share? Or is that...
Nanthia Suthana: Um, yeah, sure. I mean, I, it was due, it was when my first child [00:38:00] was born and I basically had, you know, transient global amnesia where I woke up in the hospital and didn't. I didn't have any idea why I was there, and I had basically lost like five, five to ten years of my life.
I thought I was a graduate student. I remember them telling me that you just had a baby, and I was like, wait, how can I have a baby? And I started, I started freaking out because I was like, I can't have a baby in Los Angeles. It's too expensive. How can I have a baby? I'm just a graduate student. So, I mean, obviously it was very scary at the time, and I can laugh about it now because all the memories came back.
But, um. Yeah, but I had a day or two where I basically lost five, ten years of my life. And that made this whole experience very personal for me. Um, I still think about that day almost every day. You know, and how I can try to understand what happened and what's going on. So...
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Does that just come back? Or like, was it like a graduate thing? Like, wait a minute, I am not a graduate student anymore. Or like, was
Nanthia Suthana: No, you know, it wasn't. [00:39:00] I can't, I can't pinpoint an exact time when it happened. So I, I would probably say that then it wasn't, uh, all of a sudden it was gradual. It was just kind of like, okay, now I'm fully aware of what's going on. And I recognize my husband. I know, you know, what's happening. So, but, but yeah, I mean, I, I, I try to put myself back in that time, but, you know, obviously my memory wasn't very good at the time, so it's really hard to, to know what exactly what's happening, which is why this research is all so important, right?
We need to
understand the system, how it works.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. Does it happen often? I've never heard of something like this.
Nanthia Suthana: Um, it's pretty rare. There are cases of this where people have this, you know, it's usually related to some kind of trauma or surgery complication, which in my case was the latter. And, um, And it comes back and they're, they're not known to be any long term, you know, effects. But there's quite a bit of research on this and [00:40:00] it's difficult to do, right, because it's such a brief window of time and you have to find these patients who are experiencing this at the right time and study them before, you know, it's, it's very difficult to do this kind of research in these patients with, you know, TGA. But it is a window into, you know, potentially What's going on in terms of the memory system, but it's challenging. So, yeah, so we, we instead work with, uh, folks who don't have this going on, but we're trying to understand memory. The same memory system, I guess you could
say, from, yeah.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay, well that question took a turn I did not
Nanthia Suthana: I'm sorry, yeah.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: it was very interesting.
Nanthia Suthana: Learning a lot about me, I guess.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: no, I mean, it's, that was, that was fascinating. I mean, this is always the best part when you ask a question and it goes in a completely different direction.
Nanthia Suthana: Completely different direction.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Uh, yeah, I mean, uh, second question is, uh, something you wish you'd learn sooner. Or if you, if you don't [00:41:00] like the supposed regret that's implied in that question, um, kind of maybe a lesson you'd like to share.
Nanthia Suthana: You know, um, yeah, that's, that's a great question and it's hard for me to answer because even if I say what I'm about to say now, I don't know that it would have necessarily helped me at the time. So, um, so, so what I would say is I, so I care, I care, unfortunately I think as most people do about what other scientists think about my work and that. That, if you care too much, can also be very challenging to deal with because, uh, early in, in starting my lab, I think, you know, trying to do something totally different and new, um, can come with unfortunately some negative resistance to that, you know, to that new thing. So we, we had a, a tough time the first few years in terms of getting grants and getting papers published. And I really took that. [00:42:00] To heart, maybe too much. So, so if I would have gone back, tell myself, like, you know, look, you really are onto something. Keep it going and don't listen to all of this. Don't let them get you so, you know, down. But at the same time, if I, if somebody would have told me that, you know, I probably would have still. Um, you
know, taking all that to heart, but, but that I wish I wish I would have, you know, sort of not let it get to me so much. Um, and, and it worked out, I mean, it didn't, I didn't listen to the, to the negativity kept on doing what I was doing and it all ended up working out, but sort of in hindsight, I'm like, okay, I mean, it makes sense why that was happening, you know, because I'm trying to do something that is totally different and not everybody is sort of necessarily on board with that.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: So what, briefly, what was so different about what you wanted to
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: I'm from the inside after it's been successful. So for me, it seems like an obvious choice, right?
Nanthia Suthana: Well, when I,
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Well, afterwards, right?
Nanthia Suthana: after the fact, I mean, when we [00:43:00] first started like, right, doing recordings in these patients who have these implanted, uh, chronically implanted electrodes while they're walking around and moving, I mean that no one had done that before, right? That was brand new. Uh, and many people had told me and granting reviews told me this is not really worth it.
It's not going to work. It's even if you get it to work, there's so many issues or limitations, like we can't really use it. It's not going to be good for anything. I mean, I had, I don't know, hand a whole folder full, I have a whole folder of grants that were rejected in the beginning and the papers also got. triaged and harsh reviews in the, in the first few years. And I, and I think looking back on that, like now, right. Is because it was, it was different. It was, it was really trying to start a new, you know, sort of approach in this field and, you know, not everybody's going to necessarily be totally supportive of that or see the vision.
Right. And I, and I, and I will say there were many people that were really supportive. It was sort of like a, [00:44:00] either all in. They, they were so excited about the vision and I can think of those people. And since day one, they were like, this is, you know, you're onto something, keep going. But with that, you also have the other side.
And so, um, you know. Not all advice is good advice.
I would say that's the lesson I learned and you know, you can ignore some of the bad advice But yeah,
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: But how do you sift kind of through that to some extent? Is it just because some, I mean, because, you know, it's very easy to go like, oh, these people are right. If assuming them, they're making these arguments,
Nanthia Suthana: yeah, I mean a lot and a lot of the things they said were right, right? So they were highlighting all the limitations and the challenges But at the end of the day when I heard all those things, I'm like, yeah, that's true. But the benefit of The benefit outweighs all of those. So I'm going to keep going, you know? So I always had to sort of go back to myself and trust my intuition, trust my gut, I guess, [00:45:00] so to speak. And, you know, this is worth it. Let's keep going. Yeah. Okay. Let me, let me listen to their criticisms and, and use it to, to improve what I'm doing. Okay. Maybe the first. You know, first lab that I built, we, a GoPro on the ceiling is going to, isn't going to get us the data we want to, we want to get, okay, let's, let's spend a little more money and get good cameras or whatever that can capture motion, right?
Let's, let's do better. Let's keep, let's keep, uh, integrating these comments if they're constructive. Right. And that was very helpful. I think the, the ones that are not are like, okay, this is useless. This is worthless and not worth your time. And I think that that's the kind of advice that I definitely am glad that I ignored.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: talking to advice. Uh, I just handed him a PhD. We'll be a postdoc soon. Do you have any advice for someone in my kind of position?
Nanthia Suthana: Well, first of all, congratulations. That's a
huge milestone. I still remember that, you know, that time in my life, but, you know, in terms of like the unknown, [00:46:00] right. Cause there's a lot of unknowns and that can, that caused me a lot of anxiety at the time. But, um, but it's a big deal. So congrats and I guess advice at that stage.
Um, I mean, I think it will go back down to what I mentioned earlier, which is you know, don't, don't be afraid of sort of these. Unexpected turns in your postdoc or new opportunities like your postdoc is your, I think is like a, is a prime peak time where you are at your best, right? Like in terms of what you've learned and what you can apply and. You know, learning new skills, of course, but applying the skills you have maybe in new ways, like, don't be afraid to necessarily go into areas that are, may seem uncomfortable, like, like Matthias did, you know, in his postdoc learning a completely new skill, but applying his knowledge to integrate with that. And then don't be afraid to think outside of the box and, and try, you know. Some crazy [00:47:00] ideas if your PI is supportive of that.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yes, in accordance with your PI's agreement.
Nanthia Suthana: right.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Yeah. It's funny. I mean, I really like the advice. It's just today I actually, I published an interview, my second interview with Adam Mastroianni who said something very similar. And now I'm almost like, oh damn, several people are like advising me to do something like unusual and brave and I have to do something crazy now.
Nanthia Suthana: I
mean, who, who, why are we in science, right? In the old days, right? Like the traditional scientists, the mad scientists or whatever back in the day. I mean, that's what, that's what scientists did. And I think, you know, unfortunately this whole, you know, publishing and grant mechanisms that we have have made it, made us all play it really safe.
So we need a little bit more of that, I think.
So it's not going to hurt.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: More of a crazy scientist. okay. I'll get my hair really messy and look like there was an explosion or something like that.
Nanthia Suthana: [00:48:00] Yeah, internally, you know, not
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: okay. Okay.
Nanthia Suthana: part of my job in my lab is sitting around with my lab members and just brainstorming crazy ideas. Not necessarily that we will implement, but like just, you know, being creative, there's this whole aspect of creativity before I became a scientist.
I wanted to be an artist. I think there's a huge part of that. You know, being, being creative that we're, we lose sometimes as we progress through academia, which we shouldn't. Right. And that, that I think is the exciting part. And that's what makes, you know, breakthroughs. I think that that's what makes innovation. How fun, right? Go back to that. You know, graduate, which was one of the reason I love, you know, meeting with graduate students. They still have that, you know, and they're not, not somehow we get jaded as we go through this academic life, but we need to go back to that. Yeah. Excitement. Creativity.
Benjamin James Kuper-Smith: Okay, I think that's a good word to end on. Uh, [00:49:00] thank you very much.
Nanthia Suthana: Yeah. Thank you. It's been fun.