Behavioural Neurogenetics Group

01.05.2020 – More Grant News

We just received the wonderful news that we were successful in securing an HRC explorer grant. Together with our colleagues from the Malaghan and School of Biological Sciences, we aim to develop an assay for early mitochondrial dysfunction in neurodegenerative diseases.


I’ve heard you’re a doctor back in Colombia, can you tell us how you’ve got from medicine to deciding to do lab work?

That’s a very tough, deep question! I think I ended up in medicine because of me loving biology. So back when in high school when I was in biology, I loved learning to know how the body works. It was completely amazing to know how it works. At that time my mind was very narrow, like a teenager and didn’t consult about my future with more experienced people around me, so at the time I thought that if I was going to study biology I will end up as a teacher. It was the only thing I had seen from people who studied biology. So, in my mind, which was stupid in many ways, I thought it wasn’t what I wanted to do. So many people told me that if I liked biology and how the body worked, I should go into medicine. I tried it. So, there was a pre-med course to see if you liked medicine. The classes where biology, chemistry and all the cool stuff, so I say it’s what I want to do because I like it. It’s how I started to study medicine. It’s very expensive studies in my country but I guess like everywhere else. So, I started studying with a scholarship and the help of my brother. The first half of the career is biology, chemistry and all, you know, the very cool stuff and I loved it! But when I transitioned to the clinical stuff, going to see patience and not being able to help them even kind of knowing what they have, that’s when I realized that’s probably not what I wanted to do with my life. But it was too late, so I just finished. But at the end, I knew that wasn’t what I was looking for to do with my life. And it didn’t make me happy in many ways. But I still liked the basis and what you can do. I went to a neuroscience class and I just fell in love with it. If the human body is crazy amazing, the human brain is even more. That’s how I ended up in research and from there everything led to lab work.

What appeals to you the most about research in neuroscience (and what you do now)?

I guess I always been attracted to the Why of thing. Why things work and do the way they are. So why the brain or how the brain make a person be a person, that’s exciting! I am always fascinated by these questions, so trying to understand the underpinning mechanisms is very interesting. I think that’s what made me go into neuroscience, wondering why the whys and hows of the world and the human brain, specifically.

What scientific question would you like to answer in your lifetime?

Oh my god, I have seen that question with Varun! It’s a very tough one! Right now, there is so many questions worth pursuing. I don’t know, maybe something to do with sleep and dreams. I think dreaming is a very unknown state of the mind and there are so many questions we don’t have the answers to. We don’t know what’s going on and the purpose of it is. We are spending so much time sleeping and this state of dreaming doesn’t really seem to serve a purpose, unlike hallucination or psychosis. So, I guess what I would really like to understand is how and why this phenomenon comes up to me when I am asleep and the underpinnings of it. I think it actually relates a lot with microglia in the sense that, I love microglia and everyone is just very heated up for neurons, but actually looking to other cells that support the whole is quite nice to understand. Microglia have these crazy functions where there are not only defending the brain against insults or internal injuries but also participating in neurogenesis, pruning and plasticity mechanisms, and dreaming, for me, must have a lot to do with plasticity and how the brain process the day. It’s rebooting the system the experiences you had during the day. I think microglia is quite helping during this process. If I ever was able to combine these two things, I would be quite happy.

Back to your clinical stuff, do you think having a clinical background in medicine helps you in any way on your research now?

I think I am going copy Daniel’s reply on this, in the sense that medical background gives me a different perspective. So, you know how people from different discipline approach a problem based on their knowledge. Even though, I have a few knowledges in biology, physiology and all these stuffs, I don’t actually have lab experience. The fact that I have seen all of that translated in clinical stuffs, in patients, kind of give me an idea of how I can interpret the results. You know, this translational interpretation when you have you results and want to translate them on a group of people. It gives me the ability to extrapolate thanks to my knowledge of patients. I think medicine is not only being with patients but also is analysing problems and how to resolve them in a very schematic way. It’s also writing and reading are very developed skills through the study, so it helped me building the knowledge and how to approach article and stuff.

So, it brings me to, what are the main difference between working with patients and rats, for you?

Maybe the difference will the degree of reality. Oh, I don’t know how to answer this. Okay, I am going to try to make this clear for you. So, when you treat patient, you have huge responsibility because if you think about it, you have the path of another human being in your hands. And this human being, it’s not only him but there is also his family, friends, partner. So, in many ways, you have the power to influence in many many ways the life of one but also many other. If you make a mistake at some point, and we are humans so we are prone to do mistakes, it will have a huge impact into many people’s life. I think for me, it was what kind of said “I can’t deal with that”. At some point, just thinking that I could hurt somebody, you know when you go into medicine it’s with a very altruistic idea and you think you’re going to help people, but in my case the fear of arming someone was bigger than the thought of I can help. Maybe in my case it’s a link with the self confidence in some sort of way, but for me treating patients was very emotionally and morally challenging. With rats, the moral equation is still here because in many I can feel their pain and I relate to them and it makes me sad sometimes when I see painful things done to them. But, because we are humans and we are taught to be more related to other humans than animals at this time in society, I think it a little bit easier to deal with the moral burden that you get from working with animal rather than humans. That’s the differences, I guess. I understand the things that I do and why working with animals is important. I need to have a peaceful mind with what I do, and it’s easier with rats than humans.

If you could describe a typical week as a research assistant, what would it be?

Right, so when I get in on Mondays, I try to organise my week and see what I need to do during that week. I am not as organized as Varun who said that he organized every single day, I am not that organized yet but I organize my week and what I have to do over that week. Basically, I divide my time between the different project that I am a part of. Like if I have to be with you, I know I have to be with you so I’ll set that time aside. So, my week would get from helping you if you need help with your project, to helping Amy as well. For example, right now we are starting practicing surgery in the afternoon, so I know I have to be free in the afternoons. But other weeks, I’d help her with organizing rats or doing maternal observations. So, from week to week it differs depending on which state the projects are on at the moment. And if I have time, I try to squeeze CUBIC stuffs and also read about microglia if I have time. I am trying to write a review on microglia, it’s going so slow but every time I have a little bit of time, I try to squeeze some reading or writing. Between all of this, I have to take the time to reply to emails and buying things for Amy protocol or you protocol or whatever it is we may need in the lab, and also, I have meetings. I don’t know, the time goes so fast, I try to do my best to go to the lab, do admin, read and review and meetings and go back into the lab, etc.

You talked about CUBIC, what gets you excited about it?

Wow, well to be honest I think it’s that you get pretty cool 3D images at the end. I am finding out now that I am a very visual person, in the sense that I like to have pretty picture of the things that I like. Microglia and all the pretty thing you can find in the brain, if I am able to do that, I get pretty excited about it. The fact that you can have big piece of brain and stain for whatever you want to stain and get pretty picture of it. I think it’s pretty. It shows how complex the brain is and how beautiful it is. That’s what I like about it.

An other question not really related to CUBIC, how do you cope with the stress of the lab work? And how do you deal with the pressure to publish papers to be legitimized as a scientist by your piers?

I think I just need a down time after work, so I am trying to give myself time to do other stuffs. So, I can be pretty busy during the week but I allow myself to do nothing on weekends. I think allowing myself to have a time for me and a time for work is very important. Right now, I am trying not to do anything during weekends if possible. So, I just dedicate myself to fill my days with other stuff that I like. Work is not the only thing in my life. So, I love films so I go to the cinema. Wellington has so much good thing about it! One of them is those crazy film festivals from different countries. You can go and see all these independent movies that are made and you’ve never seen before. It’s quite nice to go and enjoy that. One other thing, I love is nature, and Wellington is perfect for that. You can just cross the hill and you’re on these beautiful tracts and you’re lost for one day and you come back and you’re energized again. I also go out with my friends, go to cafes. Try to find hobbies outside work and I think it’s important to deal with stress on daily basis.

And regarding the stress of publishing, I think I was more pressured before. In my mind, it was like set that you had to publish to become a good scientist. Basically, the problem we have in society to think that it’s only validation from the outside can bring you validation and value in life. But right now, I think more than trying to publish I feel more pressure by becoming a good scientist. For me a good scientist is not a scientist who has hundreds of papers and do not think about it, there’s people that split different results to publish more. It’s be more mindful about your research and your quality about it. Publishing a good quality article instead of publishing twenty so so articles. For me the pressure is not publishing numbers but more about the quality.  And I know it takes to become a scientist in that sense but I am trying to not feel pressure about it. I feel like if you go to an interview for a job, they can see how a good scientist you are and not the number of publications. But maybe it’s just for a job and maybe it doesn’t work for grant or getting money. I don’t know about this. It hasn’t been my responsibility to get the money it usually PI that do that. But maybe someday I’ll have to.

Talking about that, do you have any academic ambitions like becoming a PI?

No, not really. Maybe at the beginning I thought about it, but know I am satisfied with that I can answer the question that have been bothering me, make me wonder. I think that’s what give me satisfaction more than wondering about what position I could have. Answering the question, I have is more important, and make me happy rather than aiming a position or a rank for a lot of money or whatever.

What advice would you give to new students going into research?

It’s going to be hard to compete with the answer that Daniel gave because it was incredibly motivating. I think that if you really feel a passion for whatever it is you are researching on then you’ll be able to do. Even if you don’t have the skills or the knowledge yet, it’s about being patient with yourself and not judgemental about not having the things right or whatever. It’s going to have a lot of frustration along the way and it’s just the part of the journey. Be patient with yourself, be gentle with yourself, be kind with yourself and acknowledge that no one is perfect, no one is experienced at the beginning and then everything is learning process. let yourself be mercy to research and embrace it and learn from it. Just enjoy the journey instead of focusing on the results. Enjoying having going up and won because it is what research is about.

What can lab members ask you for-such as advice, technical skills, and everything?

I have been trained for perfusions and cutting brains so that’s quite good. I quite good with handling animals so if you need any help with that I am here. I can also help with injection, immunohistochemistry, I am getting to know better how the process of CUBIC works so if you want to make your brain transparent you can come to me. I think I am very good at writing, like how to build your ideas and structuring the whole. It doesn’t translate in how I speak but, in my writing, I do have more time to structure my thoughts and it’s easier and better. Basically, behaviour test also. And if you need admin stuff, you can also come to me.

You’re so optimistic and full of energy all the time, how do you do?

It’s called coffee! How do I do that? I think it started when I was 25 years old. Like before that I was a very stressed person and everything get to me. Everything seemed to overwhelming. It was like a crazy on my 26 birthday and I just stopped. I think I was in New Zealand actually. I just stopped. If I counted the times that I actually felt happy, they were so few. I started to realize that life is so short and there is no point on wasting time on over stressing and feeling negative about many things, when you can just flip the coin and see the positive side of things. In life, nothing is going to be perfectly good, but it’s not going to be perfectly bad either. There’s always balance, life is about balance. So, there is always a good side of this, if something bad happen (I am not saying there is a reason for it), you need to try to shift the way you see what happened and get the positive out. That how you grow. Once, you do that, you realize what life is about. I think it’s the same with research. You just have to embrace the positive and the negative in life because that’s how you live. Life is so short it’s a waste to focus on thing that don’t really matter, and don’t make you grow as a person or achieve anything at all. That’s it. I am not saying that I don’t feel negative emotion, I do feel them quite a lot. I am human I feel sad; I feel the stress still but I try to breath and say okay me let’s calm down and let’s be positive about it.

Last but not least, you already talked about cinema and going out and stuff, tell us more about your hobbies.

So, what is my life when I am outside the lab? Every month, we get to have a new moon and there’s a perfect time to watch the sky. My brother got into photography and more particularly Astrophotography and I love watching up to the starts. I am very romantic in the sense that if I am walking in the streets at night time I am going to spend my time watching at the sky. I think it’s amazing to see your position in this universe. So, be able to go with my brother and be a part of his hobby and what makes him happy is quite nice. I get to see these beautiful starts and shouting starts and I am also a part of his montages and his ideas he has for his pictures. It’s so cool to learn from him about the names of the starts, nebula, the astro-objects in the sky. That’s very nice. I also love to dance. I started to go to Belly dance classes, I am not really good at it because my coordination is not very good. If I have to do coordinated steps, I am so bad at it but if I listen to the music it’s like an inner way of, I move. So, I go to Latina party and Wellington and just go there, it helps me shake the stress away. Movies are also a big part of my weekends. I go to the cinema often if I think the movie is worth it, there are many tiny little cinemas in Wellington that are super great. I also watching films on Netflix. I like to go to nature and traveling so I do that too. I also try to squeeze the gym. I love running so I try to do that (and it also helps with stress release). I love Wellington because it’s small and you can walk around and find new cute places and cafés where you can eat good food and have gigs. I also like music a lot so I listen to music. Wellington is so filled with fun things to do all the time!

Interview done by Alix Arnas


My name is Meyrick Kidwell and I have recently completed my Masters in this lab. The central topic for my thesis was depression however I used a range of different research methods including behavioural, neurobiological and physiological methods. Next up I hope to further explore and develop our understanding of heart rate variability through a PhD. While HRV and the heart-brain interaction will be my primary focus in the coming years, I love a good challenge so would enjoy diversifying my skill set through learning and developing new methods.


I am a master’s student studying whether dendritic spines are altered in the serotonin transporter knockout rat model and whether these changes also occur over time, using western blot, qPCR and neuronal culture techniques. My interests and passions lie in the cellular/molecular bases of behaviour, especially with regards to synaptic neurobiology. In my spare time I’m either at the gym, watching tv shows, or sleeping (which also happens to be my favourite hobby).


I am originally from Kansas City, Missouri (USA) and went to undergrad at The College of Wooster (very small uni in Ohio). I majored in Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience and worked in several neuroscience labs. I did a small research project on body image and affective responses measured via EEGs. I also researched sex differences in the effect of acute, restraint stress on working memory in Sprague Dawley rats (for a small project).

For my undergrad thesis, I researched cognition in Type 1 Diabetes versus non-diabetics in terms of  inhibition, task switching, and psychomotor efficiency. I decided on this research topic because I’ve been a Type 1 Diabetic for 15 years and I wanted to know how this disease impacts (or could impact) my cognition. Interestingly, I found that Type 1 Diabetics had significantly slower psychomotor speed across all tasks even though their task switching and inhibition skills were normal. I think it would be interesting to follow up on this research…maybe an idea for my Master’s thesis?

How did I end up at VuW?

I studied on exchange here trimester 2 of 2016 and had a wonderful experience. I decided after graduating undergrad last May, to come back to VuW for postgrad studies. I am doing part 1 of the CBNS Master’s program and would love to find a job in NZ after finishing my degree.

For our first year of the CBNS program, we complete two research projects in a different lab each trimester. 

Trimester 1: I was a part of the Human Learning Lab with Anne and Maree. My research project was on experiential delay discounting and time perception. I did not know anything about this topic prior to last trimester, but I learned a lot of valuable skills about human behaviour analysis. I am currently preparing my 2-min talk for the poster session about our research projects on Friday.

Trimester 2: I will be working on Ultrasonic Vocalizations mainly using DeepSqueak. I am not familiar with USVs or DeepSqueak but Bart and Jiun have provided me with articles to get started on understanding the material. My goal is to read the articles this week.

I look forward to working in this lab and learning about USVs in rats


I am a Dutch master student

My name is Emma de Ruiter and I am a Dutch master student. I ended up in Wellington writing my master thesis. I study pharmacy at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Now, you might think: what is a Dutch pharmacy student doing in a psychology lab on the other side of the world? I’ll explain. For me, the brain has always been the most intriguing part of the human body. The different theories, not knowing exactly what happens on physiological level, and the huge number of external factors that influence its function. This gives the brain some sort of mystery.

Also, current medication to treat for example depression are not very pleasant to use and have a lot of side effects. This made me, as a future pharmacist, motivated to write my master thesis in this discipline. During my bachelor thesis, I had the chance to investigate the effect of MDMA on patients with treatment-resistant PTSD (just a literature study though). To try to continue this path, I ended up here in Wellington.

Other then my internship here, New-Zealand has so much to offer! I am amazed by the beautiful nature and all the kind people. I like to spend my free time outside, either rowing, tramping, sailing or surfing.

I am a Dutch master student


“Hello!  My name is Henry Chafee, and I am from Seattle, Washington in the United States.  I joined the CBNS lab group ahead of beginning my bachelor with honors in psychology at Victoria University in March of 2020.  In addition to cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, I am also interested in clinical psychology, specifically, counseling and therapy, as well as research.  When I’m not at Uni, I love to go for a tramp in the bush around Wellington, and grab a beer with friends afterwards.”


“Originally from the Waikato, I moved to Wellington in 2019 to study a masters in cognitive and behavioural neuroscience. I have particular interests in genetics as well as drug effects on the brain and I plan to delve into the relationship between the two for my thesis.”


Michaela is interested in the underlying factors that contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders. Her research targeted the genetic and environmental interactions which underlie Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Previous research has demonstrated that prenatal exposure to Valproic acid increases the risk for ASD, and changes in serotonin have been similarly implicated. As such, Michaela has examined the effects of continuous prenatal exposure of Valproic acid in animals which had reduced serotonin function. She has examined behavioural and immunohistochemical changes in offspring that are prenatally exposed to valproate. Michaela’s research advances the VPA-induced animal model of ASD and contributes novel methods and measures to the field.

To know more about her reseach, check our projects.

Nicotine and tobacco addiction

There are over a billion smokers worldwide, costing an estimated $5.6M annually in New Zealand (NZ) alone. High tobacco taxes in NZ, while effective in triggering smoking, have had serious financial impacts on those unable to stop smoking and their families. Smoking remains a big problem largely because smoking is very addictive. However, we now know that tobacco dependence is more complex than “just” the effect of nicotine. In fact tobacco smoke contains many hundreds of different compounds.

Within this project we aim to investigate which of these components could potentiate the addictive properties of nicotine, focussing predominantly on monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitors. As the term implies, MAO is involved in the breakdown of monoamines such as dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin. In fact there are two different forms of MAO, with MAO-A more involved in the metabolism of noradrenaline and serotonin and MAO-B more involved in the metabolism of dopamine. Given that all drugs of abuse (including nicotine) increase dopamine neurotransmission, MAO inhibitors could contribute to the rewarding properties of such drugs by blocking the subsequent breakdown of dopamine.

Together with Drs Penny Truman and Rob Keijzers as well as AProf Paul Teresdale Spittle, we have identified several MAO inhibitors in the tobacco smoke and we are now investigating whether these components, alone or in combination with each other, enhance the rewarding properties of nicotine. To that extent we will use several behavioural paradigms such as conditioned place preference and self-administration.

This research is supported by grants from the Health Research Council and the NZ Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.