Faculty Interview: Dr. Shawn Hochman

By Don Noble

Originally published Spring 2012.

sulcus132Shawn Hochman, Associate Professor of Physiology at Emory, is the former Chair of Admissions for the Neuroscience Graduate Program and a member of the Neuroscience training faculty.

Dr. Hochman, can you briefly describe your research and how it relates to the interdisciplinary orientation of the program?

My broad research interests have to do with spinal cord function.  I like to view myself as a systems electrophysiologist.  I believe that we need to understand the way circuits function by understanding their inputs and outputs, and in spinal cord we can selectively activate numerous sensory input modalities while also recording responses in terms of motor output. At the same time we can also probe sensorimotor transformations within individual interposed interneurons. In terms of the broad perspective of the research, I love the field of neuromodulation; the way modulatory transmitters like serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline can sculpt circuits to completely transform their behavior. We study dysfunction in neuromodulation in relation to Restless Leg Syndrome, locomotion, spinal cord injury, pain modulation, and autonomic function.

I’ve also had great interdisciplinary collaborations.  For instance, we’ve interacted with Neuroengineering faculty at Georgia Tech to create this freakish hybrid model of a walking spinal cord – an isolated spinal cord with limbs attached.  And recently I am thrilled to be collaborating with Keith Tansey in relation to spinal cord injury and autonomic dysreflexia. [Keith Tansey is an MD/PhD neurologist at Emory who is also Director of Spinal Cord Research at the Shepherd Center].  For my research overall, I’ve become more and more convinced that i) sensory afferents are  much more important than we give them credit in terms if dictating central nervous system function, and ii) a major future effort in neuroscience should be to become more integrative, as we now try and understand how these systems merge and link together.

One example that merges these ideas and fits beautifully into interdisciplinary neuroscience is Don Noble’s project (interviewer’s note: the mark of a supportive advisor is talking up your research!).  Don came to do a rotation in the lab because he was interested in neuromodulation and how he could fit it into his studies on compassion meditation.  We ended up having a great intellectual dialogue on the sources of wellness in terms of meditation, ultimately leading to the idea that a fundamental component of meditation and yoga is deep breathing, and it may be that afferent activity patterns associated with deep breathing are actually entraining wellness.  This led us to propose the establishment an animal model to perform mechanistic studies on the effects of deep breathing on stress reactivity and general wellness.  We are effectively reconceptualizing techniques from alternative and complementary medicine in a way that allows basic scientists to really bite their teeth into them.

Don Noble
Don Noble

What kinds of interdisciplinary opportunities are available to students in the program?

I think that it’s been becoming more and more apparent that one area that neuroscience research and funding are headed is in the direction of addressing bigger, broader picture questions that require an interdisciplinary perspective – an example of this integrative trajectory is the development of research programs in neurotheology, neuroethics, neuroeconomics, or neurolaw.  It’s clear that neuroscience embraces almost everything, and as a program we need to realize that interdisciplinarity is the way of the future for many different areas of neuroscience research, particularly areas associated with imaging and engineering where there is an interface between the disciplines that’s a clean fit; for example, imaging studies on the economics of decision making, or imaging and lie detection. I feel strongly that the best way to launch novel interdisciplinary neuroscience research is for ambitious students to act as the bridge between two different disciplines. Students are in an ideal position to “learn two sulcus136languages” and can forge collaborations leading to new areas of research by having co-mentors. Our program leadership have made a strong commitment to embrace the wider field of neuroscience, which now includes the Emory Neuroethics Program and the Scholars Program in Interdisciplinary Neuroscience (SPINR). SPINR has as its idea that neuroscience and some other specialty, or two very disparate areas in neuroscience, can be merged to create really transformative areas of research. As SPINR attempts to redefine itself, one possibility is the establishment of a center for interdisciplinary neuroscience research, in the same vein as the Neuroethics Program (part of the Center for Ethics), the Center for Mind Brain and Culture, and the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience.

When I was accepted to Emory, you were the first person I heard from over the phone, and the conversation was so colloquial that I didn’t realize I had been talking to an associate professor until we hung up.  Having been in the program two years now, I’ve noticed that this spirit of camaraderie characterizes the program as a whole.  What is your experience interacting with students and faculty in the program, and why do you think Emory Neuroscience is such a cohesive group?

Halloween, 2009: Gumby Hochman presents at Frontiers in Neuroscience.
Halloween, 2009: Gumby Hochman presents at Frontiers in Neuroscience.

For the neuroscience program I think it all begins with the leadership and their ideology, and the leadership under Ron Calabrese and subsequently Yoland Smith, as well as the executive committee, have had a rather flat, level power structure and have always included student representation on the executive committee, subcommittees, and in decision making.  When you include people at all levels of seniority as similar in terms of the importance of their opinions, and when you listen to the feedback of your students and treat them with respect, it creates a much friendlier atmosphere. The neuroscience program executive committee and leadership are highly responsive to students’ concerns, and we take almost all student suggestions seriously because we know they’re at the front lines and they’re experiencing it. If they’re not having a good experience, obviously we need to change something to make it better.  Science always moves forward, so in terms of implementing coursework we also strive to think forward in terms of what students will need in the future. I think it is very important that the leadership has an ideology of egalitarianism and embraces students as extremely important members of our neuroscience research community.

What is your vision of an ideal rotation? 

What should students be looking for in a rotation if they’re either a) clueless about where their interests lie, or b) already certain about where they’ll end up?

In choosing a lab for a rotation, it depends on whether it’s your first, second or third.  But obviously you begin by undertaking a rotation in a lab and research area that interests you.  I personally think that aside from working in a lab with broadly similar research interests as your own, it’s very important as a Ph.D. student to be working with a group that you feel is a good fit for you. Whether in a big or small lab, it is important to have good rapport with your advisor.  And I think it’s a mistake to go into a lab that might have high esteem and produces high impact publications but makes you feel miserable. I think it’s really important that if you’re going to work hard at something, you love it. I think you should also talk to other students and find out which faculty have a good reputation for keeping students or rotating students and which ones do not – even though you may be interested in their research. Never be afraid to ask questions when you’re seeking advice about where to go, especially from more senior students in the program.

When it comes to doing your second or your third rotation: If you’ve found that the first lab or research area is not a good fit, then you should shop around and listen to your friends and try a different area that might interest you. On the other hand, there are a lot of faculty members in many areas of neuroscience research here, so if you really are married to, say, behavioral neuroscience, you can explore further dimensions of that research area in other labs including those that use different kinds of techniques.  I also think it’s a good strategy for students coming in who already know where they’re headed to help ‘their’ lab by learning certain techniques or forging collaborations through particular rotations. So my overall advice for rotations is to do at least a bit of sampling, but always try to start with an area that you feel is your strongest interest.

Finally, what advice would you give to accepted students who have to decide on a graduate program?

In the current climate, where research dollars are few and far between and success rates at NIH are hovering around 10%, there are going to be fewer and fewer faculty who can feel confident about continuous grant support to accommodate students for 5-6 years.  Usually there’s overlap between when a student starts and a grant ends, so there may be a period when an advisor loses funding.  I think that it’s very important when you interview to ask faculty if they will actually have the money to support a student.  In the present funding climate, it’s harder to find a lab where funding is available and that isn’t already full with students. There’s also an increased possibility of your advisor losing funding in the middle of your PhD, potentially compromising required expendables to complete your research at the level you had hoped. In such a current environment, I think it’s a smarter bet to be in a large program where such things can be absorbed by partnering with other faculty who have complementary interests.  In a climate of limited funding, the larger programs are a better insurance policy.   And in our program not only do we have a large training faculty of more than 100, we also have many others who are doing neuroscience research but for whatever reason have yet to join the program.

Also, it has been my feeling (moving here from Canada 12 years ago) that in general, for whatever reason – maybe it’s the South or the sunshine! – people here are friendly, doors are open, and there’s a lot of collaboration.  If you look at the students that have graduated in the last several years, you’ll find that many of them seem to be almost co-advised and their publications are associated with more than one lab.  This reflects the great, productive interactions between different labs, which I think are extremely important for a graduate student.

As for making a decision on graduate programs, I don’t think you should over-intellectualize it.  You should make sure that the program has the fundamental components of research that are within your area of interest, but really, when you leave your interview, decide how it made you feel to be there.

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