Postdoc Profile: Michael VanElzakker, PhD

In recognition of National Postdoc Appreciation Week, we’re recognizing some of the talented postdoctoral researchers who make invaluable contributions to science and medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital every day.  Today’s profile features Michael VanElzakker, PhD, a neuroscientist at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging.

I am a neuroscientist here at Mass General/Harvard Medical School. My research uses brain scans to better understand chronic fatigue syndrome, which is sometimes known as myalgic encephalomyelitis.

We are researching the role of ongoing central nervous system inflammation is this condition, and working to understand what exactly makes patients feel so very sick the day after aerobic exercise.

Positron emission tomography (PET) allows us to measure the relative activation of the brain’s immune cells, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) allows us to compare functional brain circuits before versus after patients’ symptoms have been provoked by a pulmonary exercise test.

Who was your first scientific mentor? How did he or she influence your career?

Jerry Rudy at the University of Colorado was my undergraduate honor’s thesis advisor. He is a very well known figure in the neuroscience of learning and memory, and he was chair of the department. As an undergraduate with no experience, I was excited to work for him but a bit intimidated.

Dr. Rudy gave me the task of replicating a study done by a different famous cognitive neuroscientist; my task was to essentially make one tweak to the study design that would disprove this famous scientists’ theory but prove Dr. Rudy’s theory. About halfway through the months-long experiment, I realized that I thought they were both wrong. I was a bit nervous about telling him so, but his response was simply, “Let’s see what the data say.”

It turned out that I was right, and when we finally published the results he gave me first authorship.

That helped to give me the confidence to have my own ideas as well as teaching me that true science should simply be a pursuit of the truth, independent of ego.

What advice would you give a first-year postdoc?

I would give advice that I should have taken but didn’t: set aside time for friendships, exercise, and sleeping, and then jealously guard that time.

What is the most creative metaphor you have ever used to explain your science?

I use analogies or metaphors often because I think it can help people understand the overall function or mechanisms of a complex process. I use an analogy to help people understand our hypothesis of chronic fatigue syndrome.

The vagus nerve is a neuroimmune nerve. In an otherwise-healthy person, when vagus detects a relatively small amount of inflammation in the body (like from a viral or bacterial infection) it sends a signal to the brain that makes us feel sick and tired so we stay in bed. We think that an inflammatory process directly on the vagus nerve might explain some cases of chronic fatigue syndrome. The analogy I use is this: Smoke detectors are built to detect a small amount of smoke, but when they detect that smoke it might set off a sprinkler system for the whole room. The reason is that if there’s enough smoke to reach the smoke detector, there’s probably a serious fire. But if you were to hold a candle right up next to the smoke detector and blow it out, the smoke from that very small fire would still cause the whole room to be doused.

We think this might be like what happens when an inflammatory process directly on a neuroimmune nerve like the vagus nerve causes the body to feel extremely, deathly ill.

What is one mistake you made in the lab? What happened?

The very first thing I did as a post-undergrad RA in a stress neuroendocrinology lab – my first action on my first day – was to break a pipette. I had never used one before. It was humiliating but was a good lesson in why you should always just drop your ego and admit when you don’t know something. It’s not helpful in science to bluff and pretend that you know a technique or a literature that you really don’t know.

What science movies (dramas/comedies/documentaries) do you like and why?

The Brain From Planet Arous from 1957 is a favorite movie because I am a neuroscientist who likes ridiculous B-movie sci-fi.

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