PI Personals: Dr. Robert Liu

Sara Freeman, Field Reporter

Originally published May 2008.

Robert Liu
Robert Liu

When did you start at Emory?

Formally, I started in January 2005, but traveled back and forth between Atlanta and San Francisco for the first few months. I was setting up the lab and writing animal protocols. I moved with my family to Atlanta at the end of May of 2005, a month after my son Alex was born. Active research in the lab began in June after that.

Tell us about what your lab studies.

The simple answer would be mammalian auditory processing of communication sounds, but what I think my lab is mainly known for is studying neural coding, and the computational analysis of neurobiological data.

And where did you work before Emory?

I was a Sloan-Swartz postdoctoral fellow for the UCSF Sloan-Swartz Center for Theoretical Neurobiology, and I had three very different mentors: a theoretical neuroscientist who studies vision named Ken Miller; Mike Merzenich, who is a pioneer in the field of cortical plasticity; and, the mentor who gave me the most advice, Christopher Schreiner, who studies the representation of complex sounds in the central auditory system.

What do you miss the most about San Francisco?

Good Chinese food.

Sara Freeman
Sara Freeman

You received both your bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from Stanford in physics, but now you’re working in neuroscience- what inspired the change? How did you become interested in the work you’re doing now?

As a graduate student, everyone reaches the point when they think about what they want to do with their lives. I was inspired by the physics work I was doing, but I always thought of my physics degree as an enabling tool to apply quantitative methods to other questions. When I was thinking of what kind of career I would want, some friends in graduate school who were studying neuroscience pointed me toward some sensory systems papers using theoretical approaches. It got me interested in how information theory, which is used in some of the physics I was studying, could be applied to sensory neural coding. What is it that neurons are telling you about the sensory world? What are the fundamental limits of perception? The topic provided a natural bridge from my physics training to the work we do now using quantitative methods to address biological questions.

What first sparked your interest in science when you were younger?

Hmmm…, LEGO’s maybe. Building stuff and seeing how things fit together. LEGO’s were probably my favorite toy as a child, and I liked modeling objects with them.

What kinds of things do you like to do outside of the lab?

Play with my son Alex, who’s now 3 years old. Find tasty restaurants in Atlanta. I used to play a lot of volleyball in graduate school, but not so much these days.

Summer vacation is around the corner. If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Well, we are going to California, but if I could go anywhere, I’d say New Zealand. Also Alaska to see the glaciers before they’re gone! I’ve been there once, but my wife Stephanie hasn’t, and I think my son would appreciate it.

If you could be something besides a neuroscientist, what would you be?

A nature photographer.

Do you have any advice for the rising second year class as they finish rotations and start thinking about choosing a thesis advisor?

Follow your heart. You have to choose an area of research you feel really excited about that will motivate you to come into lab and be creative and not get too discouraged. The more excited you are, the more encouraged you’ll be. If you’re looking at graduate school as a source of training, take it seriously. Find a lab that uses techniques that you want to learn. Emory provides a variety of techniques from molecular to behavioral and computational. Don’t be limited though, in how you think about your project by only the techniques you have immediately available in the lab. Learn how to think outside the box.

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