The Brain Trust

While prepping for a lecture recently, Markus Meister (PhD ’87) was looking over a scholarly paper from the 1960s and came across a note about neural recording. The note, he realized, outlined a method that could allow for observing many neurons simultaneously, today.

Even though the note “had fallen out of public view,” says Meister, Caltech’s Anne P. and Benjamin F. Biaggini Professor of Biological Sciences, “it offered an idea directly relevant to something we can do today on a much larger scale. It occurred to me that we could use this 50-year-old trick to improve the yield in the number of neurons recorded simultaneously by a factor of five.”

And that, he knew, could be a breakthrough in the quest to understand the brain. He leapt into action.

Moments like this are standard practice at Caltech—and they’re propelled by flexible funding.

In the case of the neural recording methodology note, flexible funding meant that in the space of two weeks, Meister could engage an outside collaborator with access to large data sets, organize a team of neurobiology graduate students, outline a proof-of-concept test, dive into analysis, schedule daily meetings, and begin drafting a grant application for a project that ultimately would be driven by Caltech graduate students.

“Caltech is a very special place. The fact that I can quickly engage three young scientists in this project is a consequence of being in this environment. ”
- Markus Meister

This kind of funding was also used to get Caltech’s neurobiology graduate program off the ground. Meister turned to Stephen Mayo (PhD ’87), the Bren Professor of Biology and Chemistry and holder of the William K. Bowes Jr. Leadership Chair of the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering, when he saw the need for a new kind of graduate program. Using available funds from the Bowes endowment, Mayo was able to provide initial funding and first-year support to get Meister’s brainchild off the ground. That kind of purposeful action is the reason William K. Bowes, Jr., generously endowed the chair in 2012: to seed innovations in the biological sciences. Today, Meister serves as the program’s graduate option representative.

“Caltech is a very special place,” Meister says. “The fact that I can quickly engage three young scientists in this project is a consequence of being in this environment. They have impressive backgrounds in computation and engineering—so they were in a position to quickly jump on it and take it to the next level.”

And, yes, he did all that and still delivered his Bi 164: Tools of Neurobiology lecture.

Giving Priorities