Illustration by Raul Colon
In 1899, the Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal showed the close spatial relationships between astrocytes, a type of glial cell, and neurons in the brain. Today, 120 years later, Dr. Baljit S. Khakh is working to better understand how astrocytes — which represent about 40 percent of all the cells in the brain — communicate with each other and with other cells. Answering these fundamental questions will help to increase our knowledge about their possible role in contributing to human brain disorders such as Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Dr. Khakh steps into the U Magazine spotlight.
When did you first start thinking about science?
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, my older brother bought me an encyclopedia of science and technology, and I remember looking at pictures of a steam engine or a cross-section of a road and being quite amazed at how things were built and worked. About a year later, he bought me another book about the wildlife that you could observe if you sat silently and looked around from the forest floor. I don’t know if there was a single event that got me interested in science, but those two things I look back upon fondly.
What was your first science experiment?
My first real experiment was when I volunteered in a lab for a summer as an undergraduate. It involved looking at the effect of lithium ions on a presynaptic calcium channel that affected the release of a neurotransmitter onto a bit of small intestine of the guinea pig. I worked on it for two months, but the experiment wasn’t very useful, and we didn’t learn very much.
Who is your science hero?
I’ve always admired a couple of people: Alan Hodgkin, who was a British physiologist who did some pioneering work on the action potential, and Otto Loewi, who was a German pharmacologist and who was one of the people who discovered chemical synaptic transmission. They did some amazingly elegant experiments that have stood the test of time and were very insightful.
What are the qualities of a great scientist?
Honesty has to be very high up there. Science is a complicated business, and people make mistakes. They follow blind alleys that lead nowhere. The only way out of that is honesty. And since most things you try don’t work, perseverance is a very important quality.
What do you appreciate most in your colleagues?
I appreciate people who are willing to think and have a nuanced discussion and be open-minded about how to move things forward.
What is your motto?
When I ran a lab at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, there was a quote outside the lecture theater by (Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist) Max Perutz that said, “In science, truth always wins.” I don’t have my own motto, but I’m very keen on the one by Max Perutz.
If not a scientist, what would you be?
A farmer. I know a few farmers, and the farmers I know are physically and mentally very tough people. I don’t think I would have made a very good farmer, and I probably would have died of starvation pretty quickly, but I have this romantic notion that it would have been good to be a farmer.
What is your most treasured possession?
A friend gave me a sketched portrait of a dog I used to own. This dog — Otto, after Otto Loewi — was such a fantastic companion. He died about a year-and-a-half ago, and, so, I think this portrait of him is, right now, my most treasured possession.
What keeps you up at night?
I recently got a new dog. He is 11 weeks old, so he needs to go out and do his duties every few hours. And we have another Boxer we rescued about a year ago, and she wants to go for a long walk at 5:30 every morning. Between the two of them, they are what keep me up at night.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I really enjoy running a lab and doing experiments. I really like being in an academic environment. At a very deep level, I believe it is a real privilege to do what we do, to be able to come to work, to be able to think freely, and, essentially, to work on whatever we want. That opportunity in itself is inspiring.
What has been your biggest “aha” moment?
In the last eight years, I’ve been very surprised at how astrocytes are increasingly shown to regulate neural circuits and behavior. Some of that work has come from my lab and some has come from other labs. It isn’t really an “aha” moment; it’s sort of a “hmmm” moment, a realization. I think that’s really quite interesting, and it is an idea that we’re trying to pursue.
What is your definition of happiness?
I haven’t really thought about a definition of happiness. I guess, perhaps, I am too busy trying to find it and enjoy it, but I haven’t had time to reflect on what it actually is.
What is your idea of misery?
I like to go for a coffee on my way to work, and I hate it when there’s a long queue in the coffee line. And on the weekends, I like to go to my favorite sandwich place and get a sandwich for lunch, but they change the people who work at the deli counter so often that they can never make the perfect sandwich. Those are two things that I find, at a very superficial level, to be misery.
What music do you listen to while you work?
I’ve never listened to music at work. I’d love to wear noise-canceling headphones, but I’ve resisted the temptation just in case people find it rude.