Alum: Currently a graduate student at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
How I got into science…
When I was in elementary school, I loved the idea of being a scientist — not because I knew anything about what the title entailed, just because I had crafted in my mind a vivid image of someone in a lab coat sitting at a lab bench, on which an organized mess of thoughts was splayed in the form of old coffee-ridden literature and some funky smelling flasks (I now know that those funky smelling chemicals are normally dealt with under a fume hood). Middle and high school were a sort of limbo period for me where I wasn’t sure where I could envision myself in ten (or four) years, and so, during my senior year of high school, I applied to each university as a different major — in the hopes that I would be led to the right place. I remember applying as Pharmacy, Engineering, Biology, Chemistry, and to a few, English.
In 2013, I was led to Boston as a projected Psychology/Chemistry double major, but switched into Behavioral Neuroscience within a month of my first semester, where I’ve comfortably stayed since. I began thinking about the brain as this mysterious box from which any emotional vicissitudes I experienced could emanate, and where any eurekas that had ever occurred to me could be conjured — literally everything relevant to my existence. Concurrently, I began thinking about the process of creating new knowledge, and a psychology professor once said to our class that once you discover something new, for that moment, you’re the only person in the world that knows about this. That had me hooked; I knew I had to at least try research.
The first lab I worked in for a considerable amount of time was Dr. Sandeep Robert Datta’s lab at Harvard Medical School, probing the functional differences between olfactory centers in the brain. I realized how much neuroscience research was out there, and how urgently I wanted to find out what I wanted to spend my time exploring (in that lab coat with a bunch of literature and smelly chemicals). I was mentored for that year by a great post-doc who exemplified that science can be frustrating, but can also be very fruitful. The following year I spent working in Dr. Leon Reijmers’ lab at Tufts Medical Center, unveiling the molecular mechanisms underlying fear memory extinction. Through the guidance of another great mentor, my excitement for neuroscience soon erupted. I was learning to be critical of everything I read, and I was finally understanding the literature. That led me to begin thinking about what questions I wanted the answers to, but subsequently realizing that everything can be interesting! So here I am today, kind of interested in everything, especially in learning and memory. Let’s see what happens.
For most of my life, I spent my time on a basketball court trying to replicate the moves of my favorite NBA players. Allen Iverson and Derrick Rose molded who I thought I was for a long time — I swore I was going to be an NBA player until high school. By the tenth grade, I fell in love with photography. I appreciated that a photo could tell a story when the words could be difficult to find. If you find that you have nothing better to do, here’s a collection of stories I’ve written with my camera: https://500px.com/josephzaki. I still bring out my camera from time to time, but these days I really enjoy finding new things to cook, and then of course, eat (my zucchini bread is the tastiest, bar none). I also listen to a wide variety of music and spend a lot of my time seeking out obscure new artists to listen to. I’m currently (and always) taking suggestions.
• I think it’s interesting that learning and memory is such a widely studied field in neuroscience and that so many people use models of PTSD in mice, but that one of the most striking aspects of PTSD has fallen out of popularity — that is, spontaneous recovery, or, the unexplained relapse of symptoms after exposure therapy (or, in mouse models, after fear extinction). I am interested in probing the changes that occur in engrams as a mouse spontaneously recovers a fear memory.
• I have always been interested in the concept of resilience — why do some people handle stressors better than others do? And furthermore, how do the memories of positive/negative experiences affect a person’s disposition to be resilient or not?
Book: The Plague by Albert Camus / The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Movie: Lion King
Show: American Horror Story / Seinfeld
Music: Griz / Dean Martin / Radiohead
Food: Flank steak…medium / watermelon
Drink: Strawberry basil mojito
Coffee, friend or foe: That friend you know you shouldn’t be friends with (and have been warned about), but that you check in with every morning anyway
One thing I’m sorry I'm not sorry about
I take shots of gin.
What I look for in a scientist
I hope to work with scientists who have an inexplicably strong curiosity about the world around them, but more importantly, the willingness to help out everyone around them. I believe that a synergistic approach to science is an inevitable recipe for success. And I also think that it’s comforting to struggle with others, rather than by oneself.