Science Narratives is a series of interviews with students from diverse fields in science at various stages of their career. By learning more about individuals and their journey in science, this series has the goal of breaking the stereotypes in science and showcasing the diversity in STEM. We hope readers will find connections and inspirations in these stories told.
Daniel Toker is a 2nd year Neuroscience Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley. You can follow his #PathToPhD on his blog The Brain Scientist as well as on Instagram @the_brain_scientist.
Describe your research or love for science in a haiku
The edge of the known
The thrill of discovery
What is the focus of your research?
My guiding passion is the neuroscience of consciousness. We really have no idea how the brain weaves the senses together or what’s changing in the brain when it becomes unconscious. There’s been a lot of progress on these questions in recent years, both on the empirical front and the theoretical front, but there hasn’t been enough work to bridge theory and experiment. I try to work on that bridge – to use theory to get a better empirical handle on how the brain creates experience.
Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time?
Between research and science communication, I can’t say I have very much free time! But I do enjoy fitness quite a lot. I find that it keeps me grounded.
Who is a female scientist you look up to and why?
Rita Levi-Montalcini, without question. Everything about her life was inspiring! First, she decided at a young age to pursue medicine and science instead of marriage, because in Italy in the 1940s those were essentially incompatible options for women. She and her cousin were two of just a handful of female students at their medical school, and got research positions with one of the most famous anatomists in Italy. When the second world war broke out, Levi-Montalcini was denied jobs in medicine and science because she was Jewish. Despite these major setbacks, she conducted research on the development of nervous systems in her bedroom, using chicken eggs and household items, while on the run from fascists and nazis! After the war, she continued pursuing the research she had done in her bedroom, which ultimately led to the discovery nerve growth factor, a chemical that’s critical for the growth of nervous systems. This discovery won her the Nobel Prize in 1986. And if all of that wasn’t amazing enough, she also continued doing research past the age of 100, founded and led the European Brain Research Institute in her 90s, campaigned for women’s education in Africa, and served as a Senator for Life in Italy. Rita Levi-Montalcini was just incredible.
Tell us your personal story in science + research. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
I’ve always been interested in the “big questions” of human experience, such as the nature of consciousness or whether we have anything like free will. At first I pursued these questions through the lens of art and philosophy, because I didn’t think I was good enough at math or science to be a research scientist. The result was, unfortunately, a pretty big gap in my knowledge of the way the world works. But when I started my undergraduate degree, I started to become aware of just how little I knew. I also realized that I couldn’t make headway into the questions I was interested in without understanding science, so I started reading popular science books like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and David Linden’s The Accidental Mind.
At first, I tried to incorporate what I was learning from popular science books into my philosophical thinking. At the time, I wasn’t interested in actually doing research, mostly because I thought I couldn’t. I thought that I lacked the skills to be a scientist.
But then I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I can’t overestimate how big an impact this book had on me. I was awed by Sagan’s poetic description of science as a way of thinking rather than as a body of knowledge, and felt inspired to push through the challenges of science education and research to become a scientist. The questions I was interested in didn’t change – I still wanted to understand human experience, but I decided that I would use the tools of science to pursue those questions, since science is the best way to figure out how things work. I changed my coursework to a science-heavy curriculum, declared a minor in neuroscience, and joined a cognitive neuroscience laboratory as a research assistant – it hasn’t been easy, but I haven’t looked back since!
Can you talk about one moment of discouragement and how you overcame it? What keeps you motivated to pursue your work?
Changing paths from the humanities to science was very difficult at first. I struggled in the early courses I took in neuroscience, mathematics, and molecular biology. My grades weren’t great, despite how much work I put into studying. But I never let go of that awe I felt when I read Cosmos, and that awe gave me a sense of purpose. It gave me the feeling that I was doing something intrinsically worthwhile. That feeling carried me through my studies and research, and eventually, through perseverance, I acquired the skills and knowledge to do well in science. Science is hard work, but if you have the passion, I really think anyone could do it.
Why do you think it’s important to communicate science?
There are two main reasons I think it’s important to communicate science. The first is that our world is exquisitely dependent upon science and technology, and yet hardly anyone understands how science or technology work. That’s a potential recipe for disaster. We can only make rational decisions if we understand how the world works, and science is the only reliable way to come to such understanding.
The other reason is simply that the scientific worldview is beautiful. Seeing things scientifically adds a tremendous amount to our experience of the world – it allows us to see, for example, not just the picturesque scene of waves crashing against a sandy beach, but to also see the pull of the moon on the water that causes the tides to change, or to see the origin of both the sand and our bodies in long-dead stars, or to appreciate that we can only perceive waves crashing against the sand because of the concerted activity of billions of brain cells. I think there’s poetry in the scientific worldview. Unfortunately, that poetry is lost in the rote memorization of the science classroom. Since it’s that sense of wonder that made me pursue science in the first place – and which still inspires me – I do my best to pass that feeling onto others.
How was the transition to graduate school? Any advice to those starting?
I think everyone’s experience of graduate school will be different depending on their field, advisor, and particular research area. My only advice would be to keep reminding yourself how incredibly fortunate we are to live in a society that sets aside resources to fund young scientists. Our society actually pays us to tinker! It’s really a rare and unique moment in history, despite all the stresses that can come with the academic life. For me, at least, this puts my stresses into perspective.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone considering science research?
Science research can be tough, and grit alone won’t carry you through it. Find a line of research that makes you want to work nights and weekends – because you’re going to have to!