Junior Fellow William Allen (Society of Fellows at Harvard University) wins the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists in the category of Cell and Molecular Biology, for revealing the neural basis of thirst by bridging multiple levels of brain function. “The tools I developed allow investigators to map the structure and function of the brain at high resolution and a very large scale”, he says.
William Allen received his PhD in Neurosciences from Stanford University in 2019, and today, he’s developing new approaches to map mammalian brain function and dysfunction over an animal’s lifespan at Harvard University. For his work on revealing the neural basis of thirst motivation, he wins the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists, in the category of Cell and Molecular Biology. He hopes that his results will inspire and bring new thoughts on brain function – as being an emergent property of many different regions, circuits, and cell types, all functioning at the same time and interacting.
“It is a great honor for my work to be recognized in this way”, William says.
How can the results of your research be applied by other scientists?
“The tools and approaches that I developed can be broadly applied throughout many areas of neuroscience, to understand the neural basis of a variety of behaviors. I hope that in the future it becomes routine to build detailed functional maps of activity throughout the brains of animals performing a variety of behaviors and combine these functional maps with structural maps of the molecular and cellular composition of the underlying neural circuits”.
“Bridging these levels of understanding will allow us to understand how properties of the fundamental units of the brain — neurons — conspire to produce emergent phenomena like thought and behavior”.
What kind of research do you think might follow in the wake of your results?
“I think that there is still a lot more to do, both in terms of pushing the frontier of technology and in terms of understanding how motivational drives such as thirst regulate behavior. On a technical level, I think there will be a push towards integrating these various approaches to bridge multiple levels in a single experiment”.
“For example, we would like to perform in situ single-cell transcriptional profiling of large numbers of neurons whose activity has been recorded during behavior, in order to relate the molecular properties of neurons to their neural coding properties. For motivational drives, it would be interesting to see how different motivational drives, such as thirst, hunger, or sex drives, interact at the level of brain-wide neural activity dynamics to shape an animal’s overall patterns of behavior”.
Which part of your work with this was the hardest?
“There were many technical challenges in developing the various approaches that I worked on during my PhD, due both to the complexity of the techniques themselves and the fact that developing them required bridging multiple disciplines, from neuroscience, to computer science, chemistry, and microscopy. Fortunately, I was able to collaborate with many very talented students and postdoctoral fellows in a variety of fields in order to overcome these challenges.”
Could you explain more about the tools you have developed in your research?
“The tools I developed allow investigators to map the structure and function of the brain at high resolution and a very large scale. In particular, I was interested in developing approaches that would allow one to measure the activity of single neurons distributed throughout large parts of the brain, or ideally the entire brain, while an animal performs a particular behavior. Other tools were more focused on mapping the structural properties of individual neurons with subcellular resolution in an intact brain. In particular, STARmap, a technique for in situ transcriptome mapping, is broadly applicable beyond neuroscience.”
What do you hope will come of your research?
“I hope that the approaches I develop will broadly make an impact on neurobiology and other areas of biology. Further, I hope that my results will inspire other researchers to change how they think about brain function: as a behavior not being the product of a particular brain region, or circuit, or cell type, but really being an emergent property of many different regions, circuits, and cell types all functioning at the same time and interacting.”
“I hope that there will be major conceptual advances in neuroscience once we have the tools to take this global perspective and to study how the properties of the brain at different levels are interconnected.”
What do you like to do in your spare time?
“I do not have much spare time these days, but I enjoyed reading, taking walks, cooking, and spending time with my wife.”