A line of young neuroscientists of diverse origins shifts their scientific roots to a "laboratory of fear" in Puerto Rico that the National Institutes of Health has supported for two decades. A crucible for fear-extinction studies, the lab has so far published 80 articles – some of the first in Puerto Rico for certain journals – that generate more than 2,000 citations per year. Of the 130 young people trained in the laboratory, 90% are from Puerto Rico and Latin America and half are women.
"Like most labs, the key has spurred intellectual growth through magazine clubs, lab meetings, weekly individual meetings, and science philosophy retreats," said Gregory Quirk, Ph.D.'s founding director. "Done correctly, these four activities develop skills of logic, communication and intellectual inquisition in trainees while also building group cohesion."
After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at New York University in New York under the renowned fear researcher Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., Quirk launched the lab in 1997, in what is now Ponce Health Science University, Ponce, Puerto Rico. A decade later, he moved to his current location at the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine in San Juan, adding some studies of human and non-human primates.
Quirk provides tips on his approach to nurturing discovery and guiding "out of the way" in an article published on January 30, 2018 in the Journal of Neuroscience. It marks almost two decades since the laboratory's first publication in that journal, which showed that the ventral medial prefrontal cortex was necessary for the consolidation of the memory of extinction (loss of fear) in rodents.
Soon after, the group made headlines when it reported in Nature that it had discovered the brain equivalent of an "all clear" signal in the infralimbic cortex, which, when imitated with electrical stimulation, repressed conditioned fear in rats. Since then, the laboratory has been at the forefront of translational studies, broadening perceptions of learning experiments from extinction to mental disorders.
For example, in 2015 they reported in Nature a finding of potential relevance to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – that an old fear memory is remembered for a different brain path from the one originally used to remember it when it was fresh.
"More recently, my laboratory has explored circuits of active avoidance, obsessive-compulsive disorder and frustration using deep brain stimulation, optogenetics and CRISPR-Cas9 techniques," added Quirk.
He credits NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) support as a key to the lab's success. For example, a FIRST NIMH Award has been renewed four times. The laboratory was also the first in Puerto Rico to receive the Presidential Prize for Early Career and the MERIT Award.
"Other concessions" for Puerto Rico were a subway of CONTE Center P50, a Pathway to Independence Award (K99-R00) for my postdoctoral and Dissertation Completion Awards (R36) for my graduate students – all funded by the NIMH " , noted Quirk.
Quirk's report includes comments from former trainees, which he gathered during a recent meeting celebrating the laboratory's 20th anniversary. For example, "after years of JClubs, you are never satisfied with mediocre efforts," said a former PhD student about the lab's required magazine clubs.
Weekly laboratory meetings, initiated with guided meditation and "appreciation," set a tone that fosters a culture of cooperation, Quirk said. The rotating presentations of trainees ensure that everyone knows what each person is doing / thinking in the laboratory and can help guide it.
"It was impressive when I found a member of Quirk Lab presenting another member's poster without being part of the study: lab meetings turned each member into advocates of others' projects," noted a former student.
Members of the lab are encouraged to overcome any inclination to be socially educated and courageously ask questions to each other, Quirk said. The same high standard is expected in written communication. A "Six-Eye Rule" dictates that manuscripts be criticized by three outside readers before being submitted to a journal.
"You're writing for a brain that is not yours," he remarked.
The idea of having what Quirk affectionately calls "Face Time" – individual individual meetings – originated with the students. "This was a firm deadline to make my data presentable and remind Greg of the importance of my project," a current post-doc said.
For three days each winter, the lab uses university funds to drive the mountains to a Science Philosophy Retreat. "Instead of discussing data, the idea of retreats is to examine the philosophical issues that define us as scientists and to ground our approach to scientific issues," explains Quirk.
"The retreat gave me the confidence to trust other people in the lab," noted a current undergraduate student. Each undergraduate or post-doc student guides two to four undergraduate students.
In a recent message from the director of NIMH, who highlighted feared lab trainees at last year's Society for Neuroscience meeting, NIMH director Joshua A Gordon, MD, Ph.D., wrote: "Dr. Quirk is one of NIMH's longtime grantees who has been a supportive and effective mentor, training numerous undergraduate and graduate students who have moved on to stellar careers in neuroscience. "