Christian Burgess, PhD
What are real-world applications from the research you do?
Research in the lab focuses on (1) identifying neural circuits that drive fundamental behaviors, like sleep and feeding, and (2) interrogating how these circuits can shape higher-order processes, like learning and sensory processing. For example, hunger state can enhance cortical responses to visual food cues in the environment, which can then impact future food choice. The ubiquity of food cues and unhealthy foods available in the USA contributes to the current obesity epidemic in the country. Identifying the specific circuits underlying this phenomenon would allow for targeting more ‘cognitive’ aspects of consummatory behavior, as opposed to homeostatic circuits that are normally adaptive.
As a child, did you imagine yourself in a scientific research position or did you envision a different path? What motivated you to develop a research career?
I took an interest in science right from when we started having science classes in elementary school, sometime around grade 5 or 6. Fortunately my mom recognized this and bought me many popular science books and scientists’ autobiographies, furthering my interest in research. I don’t come from a scientific or an academic family, so it wasn’t until halfway through my undergraduate degree, when I started volunteering in a research lab, that I figured out how I could make a career in research. From there, I just made sure to be as productive as possible and to take all the professional opportunities available to me.
If you weren’t a researcher what profession would you have?
The only professions that would interest me, outside of research, would be being a chess grandmaster or quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, neither of which I am qualified for . . . so it’s a good thing I have this job!
In the next 5 minutes, if you could develop the perfect device or treatment related to your research, what would it be and what benefit would it deliver?
A pharmacological treatment that obviates the need for sleep would be interesting. In theory, it would free up a lot of time to pursue all the things people currently don’t have time for. In practice, however, I think it would cause society to double the expectations of work/productivity and result in very little benefit.
How do you balance your time between the demands of your research and teaching, and your personal life?
Striking a good work-life balance is difficult--there are times when work is going to take precedence and other times when home life will take precedence. I think prioritizing is key; identify the things you will not compromise on (e.g. mental/physical health; relationships; grant writing; teaching) and make sure that you are prioritizing those.
How does the experience at UM, and with the NGP, differ from your previous research experiences in Toronto and Boston?
I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto, which is, geographically and atmospherically, somewhere between the East Coast (i.e. always on the go) and the Midwest (i.e. friendly). At Harvard Medical School, where I completed my PostDoc, the general vibe is certainly a little more competitive, results driven, and, thus, stressed. I enjoyed my experience in both places, although those experiences are not for everyone. At U-M, the atmosphere is incredibly collegial and supportive. The commonalities between all three places are that there are many intelligent and motivated faculty members and trainees, who tackle fascinating questions in neuroscience. Honestly, the biggest difference is going from growing up in Toronto, a city of 4-5 million people, to living in Ann Arbor, a city of ~120,000 people. That has been an adjustment!