‘You need to be patient in science, but it is hard.’

Dr. Lucina Uddin talks science, challenges and her biggest ‘Aha!’ moment.
Dr. Lucina Uddin
5 min read

LUCINA UDDIN STEPS INTO THE U MAGAZINE SPOTLIGHT

While many neuroscientists exploring the human brain focus primarily on discreet areas and functions, Lucina Uddin, PhD, professor-in-residence of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences in the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, looks at the big picture, using non-invasive imaging technology to discern how the different parts connect, communicate and develop across the lifespan. A key area of her interest is flexibility — how we adapt from moment to moment in the face of challenges (and the consequences of being unable to do so) — with the goal of contributing to the development of new therapies to benefit people with conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.  

WHEN DID YOU FIRST START TO THINK ABOUT SCIENCE? 

I was under 10 years old, and I heard that we only use 10% of our brains and thought, that’s interesting, so what happens to the other 90%? I guess it stuck with me because when I started as an undergrad at UCLA and was looking through all the different majors and saw neuroscience, I thought, “Oh, that’s probably going to tell me about what’s going on with the other 90% of the brain. I’ll do that!”  

WHAT HAS BEEN THE GREATEST CHALLENGE IN YOUR WORK? 

The biggest challenge studying the human brain is that we can’t cut into it or manipulate it or inject things into it. We can only study it by using noninvasive approaches and observe it using high-tech methods to peer into the functioning brain without causing harm to the human subject. The challenge becomes making inferences from a distance. 

WHO IS YOUR SCIENCE HERO? 

My graduate advisor, Eran Zaidel. He was a professor of psychology at UCLA and had tremendous curiosity, and he encouraged his students to follow our wildest ideas. I think that’s pretty rare, because most people want to do something feasible and something tractable, and they don’t want you to go off in some wild direction. But he didn’t think any problem was too difficult to tackle.  

WHERE ARE YOU HAPPIEST?  

Honestly, I’m happiest sitting on my couch under a blanket with a cup of tea and reading a novel. I think reading literature is really how we learn about life. It is where humans do their most creative and enduring work. To me, reading fiction is more liberating than doing science.  

WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST “AHA!” MOMENT? 

When I first started in this field, thinking about the brain was modular — this region of the brain does language and that region of the brain does emotion. But the more time I spent studying a particular brain region, the clearer it became to me that no one region is specialized for a single, specific action. It’s more likely that multiple brain regions work together for a given action. I think that assigning very specific actions to very specific regions of the brain takes away from the beautiful complexity of what it is actually doing. It’s more like all these parts are playing together as an orchestra rather than one part playing as a soloist. 

WHAT DO YOU CONSIDER TO BE YOUR FINEST ACHIEVEMENT? 

In 2010, my group published a model about how the insular cortex is sort of the conductor for largescale network dynamics in the brain. I didn’t think at the time it would be anything so impactful, but it’s now been cited more than 5,000 times. In psychiatry, for example, researchers are finding that the insular cortex seems to not function well in conditions like autism, anxiety, schizophrenia, depression — that something very subtle is going on that has implications for a wide range of psychiatric conditions. It turns out a lot of researchers are using our network model to better understand their own clinical condition of interest.  

WHAT ARE THE QUALITIES OF A GREAT SCIENTIST? 

Resilience. Being able to get back up every time you’re knocked down, because more often than not, the thing you thought would work out doesn’t work out, the grant you thought would be coming in doesn’t get funded, the experiment you hoped would shed light sheds nothing.  

WHAT CHARACTERISTIC MOST DEFINES YOU? 

Someone once called me a force of nature, and I thought that was funny, because isn’t that supposed to be a bad thing, like when a tornado or hurricane comes along and busts everything up? But I guess I’ll take it.  

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST VIRTUE? 

Well, it’s not patience. I’m very impatient. Maybe it’s stoicism.  

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST FAULT? 

See above. You need to be patient in science, but it is hard.  

WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO? 

Why not? 

WHOM DO YOU MOST ADMIRE? 

My parents. They made the tough, brave choice to leave the country where we were born — Bangladesh — and come to the United States to make a better life for us. It meant having to put their own lives on hold and investing their hopes in the next generation. It’s a selfless act that I’m not sure I would be able to do.  

WHEN DO YOU NOT THINK ABOUT SCIENCE? 

When I’m doing yoga.  

IF NOT A SCIENTIST, WHAT WOULD YOU BE? 

I would write sci-fi novels. I don’t know that I’d be much good at it, but I’d certainly try. 

WHAT IS YOUR MOST TREASURED POSSESSION? 

I don’t place a lot of meaning on material goods. Don’t get me wrong, I love my stuff, but I’d also be okay without it. You’re going to lose things throughout your life, so I don’t really assign value to things.  

WHAT KEEPS YOU UP AT NIGHT? 

Nothing. I sleep eight hours a night. I’m very fond of sleep. 

WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF YOUR DAY? 

It’s when I fry up an egg and sit down with a cup of coffee in the morning and don’t have to rush through anything. Breakfast is a good moment.  

WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF HAPPINESS? 

When you realize that you’ve arrived at where you want to be and where you are valued.  

WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF MISERY? 

Needless paperwork, red tape or being thwarted in your efforts to achieve something.  

WHAT MUSIC DO YOU LISTEN TO WHILE YOU WORK? 

At work, it would be some kind of jazz that’s not obtrusive. But I don’t typically listen to music when I work; it’s too distracting. The music that I love and listen to most is hip-hop. That’s what I blast in my car on my way to work. 

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Lucina Uddin, MD
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