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Talents in Science


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Dr Aya Takeoka is Neuroscientist at the Flemish Institut for Biotechnology and the Neuroelectronics Research Institut Flanders (NERF) in Belgium. We asked her about her life:

What fascinates you most about neuroscience?

Almost everything we do in our lives is based on learned motor skills. This happens most organically during development when we are young, but this plasticity also extends into adulthood. Learning how to ride a bike and retaining that skill are good examples of motor learning and memory. For this to happen, defined sets of nerve cells, out of billions, must connect and fire in correct patterns while others may be suitably kept quiet. Motor recovery after injury is also a learning process to move again. It is also, how to re-establish good enough nerve cell wirings and a good enough ensemble of nerve cells getting active again. This is one of the fundamental neuroscience questions that we study as a lab.

Can you explain your actual project in a few simple words?
After a severe spinal cord injury, communication between the brain and the spinal cord below lesion is disrupted. Under that circumstance, sensory information from muscles and tendons is the only remaining uninjured input to the spinal cord below lesion. We study what type of nerve cells in the spinal cord get directly or indirectly activated by sensory input, and how they contribute to restoring motor function.

How do you think spinal cord research is going to develop in the future?
I am already seeing projects with a huge amount of data analysis that have started to pop up; We will need to get used to handling big data routinely. This is great, as the more granular the scientific findings become, the better the chances to tailor personalized therapeutic interventions to impact the lives of patients.

What milestone are you most proud of?
I think I am most proud that I got to start my own laboratory. Also, I was lucky enough to meet so many great people along the way. I am very appreciative of that.

How do you wind down after a long day at work?
Wine ;-) I picked up salsa dancing and enjoy talking to friends and family. I also love walks in the forests, to forget everything and to just breathe.

Do you live by a specific philosophy of life?
You get what you put in. That is one of the things I tell my students and postdocs in my new role of being a mentor. It is my job to teach them to become good scientists, how to write and communicate in science, but life is more than just skills.

Wings for Life contributes to the funding of Dr Takeokas’ project, researching the impact of sensory feedback on motor function. Learn more here.