Matt Gaidica, a second year graduate student at the University of Michigan, is listed in Pacific Standard’s “Top 30 Under 30.” Matt founded a software startup in Silicon Valley and wrote and self-published his first book, all before starting in Neuroscience. Gaidica spoke with Hippo Reads correspondent Cailey Bromer about his path to the lab, the differences between academia and the startup world, and what these two communities could learn from each other.

CB: Tell me a little bit about your life before Neuroscience and what it is that motivates you:

MG: When I was in college at Kettering University, a friend and I started our own software engineering company. We built a basic tool designed to help companies move their websites from computer to mobile platforms and sold that tool as we were moving out to Silicon Valley. Our next project was a company called Syllabuster. We wanted to turn a piece of paper—like a student’s college syllabus—into data. The goal was to provide something useful for students and make it possible for them to do things like buy books with one click. We were working from the syllabi themselves to make links between professors, books, and topics in students’ classes, and their friends’ classes. We were competing with platforms like BlackBoard and MyCourses, but we had a “hack edu” mentality: we thought of ourselves as originating from the student, then moving upwards. We found existing platforms to be clunky and lacking a friendly user interface. The tool was piloted at Georgetown before I left. One of the founders is still running that company, and the others and I have gone on to other things.

I love working with passionate people—something I find in the lab and also in Silicon Valley. In both environments, it’s easy to identify the hard workers, make friends, and have exciting conversations.The best times in life are when your lab mate or co-worker leans over and says “Hey, check this out”. I don’t think that happens in all jobs, and it’s something I seek out.

CB: Coming from a software engineering background, how did you end up in a Neuroscience lab and a PhD program?

MG: I am obsessed with “black box” problems and puzzles. We walk around in the world and our brain takes inputs and produces output, but we don’t quite understand what’s going on in between. Blackbox question are the ones I spend my all time thinking and reading about, and sometimes you just have to do things that may seem crazy. I always envisioned I would pursue a PhD. For me, it’s not so much about getting the degree than becoming an expert in something. I was interested in doing something more altruistic than what I was doing, and it was an opportune time for me to make a change. I ended up joining a lab that studies Parkinson’s Disease.

CB: How did you choose a program? Was having a non-traditional path a detriment for you in finding the right place?

MG: I started out on a volunteer basis. I wedged my way into a lab at the University of Michigan. I said, “I’ll sweep floors”. After volunteering for a few months, I became a lab technician, and from there applied to the graduate program. I like learning new things, so it’s been a challenging transition, but our faculty is really amazing, and totally supports interdisciplinary learning. I am haunted by the “jack of all trades, master of none” quip, but I can write code, build hardware, assemble implants, perform surgery, and analyze results independently—and that lets me move fast.

CB: What kind of research does the lab do?

MG: My PI, Dr. Leventhal, is a neurologist who splits his time between the clinic and the lab. Our lab works to bridge the gap between technology used on human patients and laboratory research with animals. We approach Parkinson’s disease from a circuit perspective: in other words, we know the areas of the brain that are affected by the disease (see images below), and how they are connected, and we think about the disease in that way. In Parkinson’s Disease, circuits in the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that is essential in coordinating movement, break down when cells there begin to die. The projections from the basal ganglia to higher order areas of the brain are weakened when there are fewer neurons in the basal ganglial. We focus on how this manifests in Parkinson’s Disease.


Normal and disrupted movement circuits

The thalamus is part of the brain that sits between lower order brain areas and the cortex (the highest order part of the brain). The thalamus plays an important role in coordinating rhythms across the brain because so many lower-to-higher order connections pass through it. The thalamus coordinates different types and frequencies of oscillations, which are important for all kinds of brain processes. We suspect that Parkinson’s Disease affects the rhythmicity of the thalamus because the faulty circuits in the basal ganglia (caused by cell death) result in abnormal information arriving in the thalamus. Beta frequency, a firing pattern in neurons from 13-30 Hz, is increased in Parkinson’s Disease. We suspect this may be the result of abnormal projections to the thalamus that occur in a disease state. If the disease is related to enhanced beta frequency, finding ways to artificially alleviate or block the excess of this frequency could be a great therapy.

CB: What is your project in this lab?

MG: My main project is working to see if correcting abnormal firing in the thalamus can be used as therapy for PD. I use a toxin to disrupt basal ganglia circuitry in rats in order to mimic the motor deficits seen in Parkinson’s Disease. The basal ganglia becomes “bursty in Parkinson’s Disease and projects that abnormal bursting to the thalamus. I want to see if we can recover movement by altering firing in the thalamus rather than targeting the basal ganglia itself (where the disease and “bursting” originates). I am focusing on the ventral medial thalamus, which is the area of the thalamus involved in motor circuit. Ideally, I will be able to “replay” thalamic rhythms recorded from healthy animals during movement in the thalamus itself to “hijack” the abnormal projections from basal ganglia to thalamus and override them.

Figure 3 - Gavlan and Wichmann, 2008 Simultaneous independent extracellular electrophysiologic recordings of the activity of several neurons in the globus pallidus in a normal (A) and a parkinsonian monkey (B). Traces represent 2.5 s-long example of neuronal activity. In the normal state (A.), the activity of neighboring neurons was not correlated. In the parkinsonian state (B.), however, episodes of synchronous, episodic bursting developed. For abbreviations, see text. The figure is a reproduction of figure 3 in (Bergman et al., 1998a), with permission.

Figure 3 – Gavlan and Wichmann, 2008
Simultaneous independent extracellular electrophysiologic recordings of the activity of several neurons in the globus pallidus in a normal (A) and a parkinsonian monkey (B). Traces represent 2.5 s-long example of neuronal activity. In the normal state (A.), the activity of neighboring neurons was not correlated. In the parkinsonian state (B.), however, episodes of synchronous, episodic bursting developed. For abbreviations, see text. The figure is a reproduction of figure 3 in (Bergman et al., 1998a), with permission.

CB: It sounds like you are well on your way in your current project. Was it an adjustment going from a startup environment to graduate school?

MG: Working in a lab feels similar to working in a startup to me. In both settings, you are working in a project-oriented way. There are different stages to the project; first starting, getting funding, and obtaining results. Young labs often feel the need to prove themselves in the same way startups do: my lab is very young, and we’re all rushing to get papers out. I experienced a similar feeling at a startup although the risks are a bit different. In the beginning stages of our company, I slept on the floor with the other co-founders; there were no luxuries. When you’re a co-founder, you’re essentially in charge. I think that kind of experience—to really take initiative—is not something a lot of graduate students have when they first get to grad school. Moving to Silicon Valley and being part of a team was really important for me in terms of learning how to be a leader and understanding how people get things done.

CB: What would you say are the biggest differences between academia and industry?

MG: One thing I’ve noticed in the lab—and I was just thinking about this the other day—was that no one really emphasizes culture here. In a larger sense we do, there’s art on the walls when I walk down the hallway, but it’s nothing like what startups do. If you get hired into any decently funded startup, they’re very concerned with you having a good time and being well fed (it’s a recruiting technique). I don’t know why more labs don’t provide these kind of perks to their students.

Both startups and academic labs are similar with respect to competitiveness and secrecy around ideas. However, open source is more important for a lot of reasons at a startup than in academia. It’s always been part of “hacker culture” to give away your code instead of sell it. It’s a statement that you are indeed purpose-driven and not profit-driven. We don’t “publish” as startups, so you build respect among your community by producing reusable, clean, useful code projects. There’s some ego involved, but more importantly, it’s just the more eyes on that nice algorithm you created means you will make more connections faster and get noticed. My experience in academia is that researchers have to put a lot of effort in to make something that way, whether it’s a library or a technique.

CB: What do you see as differences or challenges in funding in academia versus in a startup?

MG: I was not involved in funding our startup per se. We had a good division of labor, there were two engineers (this was my role), one designer, and a CEO focused on partnerships and funding. We survived off of angel funding (meaning funds donated by an individual with a stake in the success of the company) for the first 6 months I was there. In academia, the PI, who is primarily responsible for the funding of the lab, plays the role of the CEO at a startup.

Funding science versus a product is a whole different ball game. We had a product and some sense of where we wanted to take it. With science, you don’t know what you’re going to find. Every now and then, as I understand it, a startup will sprawl out of academia, but I don’t know how to encourage more collaboration. The challenge is: How do you get a company to explore (and fund) a cutting edge technology that you haven’t proven works yet? Startups aren’t interested in what researchers might find— they’re interested in selling their product.

What’s great about working in a lab is that we’re about creating better therapies or proving novel methods, and it’s never about profit. Profit dreams can taint a startup and drive it away from its original purpose. Startups like Facebook and Tesla displayed incredible discipline when it came to this and have been very successful.

CB: What are your passions or goals outside your research project?

MG: One of my other interests is space. It’s always captured my interest and looking up at the sky still amazes me. I think a great problem to study is what happens when a neural network goes into zero gravity; I want to study how neurons in an intact brain are affected by being in zero gravity by recording electrophysiological behavior of neurons (this is common measure of neural behavior because “action potentials”, the signals neurons send to one another, depend on a membrane potential, or the difference in electrical charge inside and outside of the neuron). Zero gravity research is technically difficult to do since there are only a few ways to create zero gravity. There are machines that manipulate the positioning of cells to mimic zero gravity, but we don’t really do electrophysiology in intact neural networks in zero gravity. There was a sixteen day, NASA led, space expedition, which brought all kinds of animals into space, and they found altered behavioral patterns and reproductive patterns, which normalized once the animals were back on earth. Of course, this could have just been from extreme stress, but I think it needs to be followed up on.

I’m talking to professors here and have their support to pursue a project where I build a small ephys (electrophysiology) recording system and drop it from high enough that it achieves gravitational acceleration in the fall. The first specimen I’m already working on recording from is a cricket. I’m recording from a gravity-sensitive nerve in the cricket during the drop and using a Backyard Brains amplifier. This will be a proof of concept. The whole project is cheap and uses all open source hardware and software. I’m calling this project “ZEROLAB”


4 ZEROLAB setup


CB: Why do you think this research is important or what would you expect to see?

MG: Proprioception, or the ability to sense stimuli arising in the body, is an important input to the brain. We expect that removing this input changes the firing patterns, frequency of oscillations or influences the connections between brain areas. Our lab recently showed that in monkeys under general anesthesia, the connections between cortical areas are affected. In other words, we see differences in activity in different cortical areas, before, during, and after anesthesia, and we suspect the effects of the anesthetic are to disrupt the communication between these areas rather than to influence lower-order brain areas. The proprioceptive feedback we receive about gravitational force is so constant that it will be interesting to study how neural circuits are affected when the gravitational force is removed.

CB: Is this an intellectual curiosity or do you think there are also clinical applications?

MG: Recently, we learned that patients who have lost movement in their hands can gain back finer movements more rapidly if they undergo training in a zero g machine. It seems that the patient can more gradually strengthen the tendons and nerves necessary for movement when in zero gravity because this takes the pressure off, literally and figuratively, to lift his or her hand. The lab leading this work also has a great stance on combining academia and industry.

CB: You also wrote a book. How did you fit that in with starting your own company and then going to graduate school?

MG: I started writing when I moved back to Michigan after working in Silicon Valley. The book was a personal journey. It was about thinking, exploring, and practicing writing everyday. I hired an editor and ended up self-publishing the book in large part because I wanted to stay 100% focused on the content and not be swayed by any outside considerations. I think one of the biggest mistakes people starting a business make is to worry about their logo and letterhead before making a solid product. I wasn’t going to get side-tracked, and I’m happy with the way the book came together. Since then, I’ve been contacted by a literary agent asking me if I’m writing anything else, but right now I want to focus on graduate school. You never know if you’re going to get through writing a book, and I don’t want to take a deal just to take it. The book I wrote is called Left: it’s about patterns and the kind of black box problems that interest me.

CB: What’s next for you?

MG: I don’t intend to go back into business. I think it would be incredibly cool to do neuroscience in space. I would love to work with NASA, and I think there’s a lot I can do outside of lab to prepare for my next step. Right now, I am enjoying working in the lab and being close to my family.

Further Reading:

Image Credit:  J.T.R. from Brain collage

About the Authors

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Academic Correspondent, Neuroscience

Cailey Bromer is a neuroscientist, writer, and lifetime learner, whose interests lie at the intersection of science, education, and culture. She holds a B.S. from Brown University and M.S. from University of California, San Diego, both in Neuroscience. She has dabbled with writing fiction and is a contributing writer of NeuWrite San Diego, a graduate student run writing group devoted to bringing Neuroscience topics to a lay audience.

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Matt Gaidica is currently a student in the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Michigan. He has a Bachelor’s of Science degree in electrical engineering from Kettering University, and has worked in both Michigan and California in research and industry. Gaidica is currently investigating the role of deep brain circuits in health and disease.