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May 9, 2014

Connecting the circuits that control memory

Thomas John McHugh, Team Leader

picture of Thomas McHugh

Laboratory for Circuit and Behavioral Physiology , RIKEN Brain Science Institute

How and when did you join RIKEN?

As a student, I participated in the first RIKEN Brain Science Institute (BSI) Summer Program in 1999 and had visited RIKEN on several other occasions. Later, as a newly independent scientist, I was looking for a job that had the funding, colleagues and infrastructure to allow me to tackle big and interesting questions. I started my lab at RIKEN in April 2009. The BSI is unique in what it has to offer and I was delighted to be given the opportunity to join it.

Please describe your role at RIKEN.

My lab looks at how circuits in the brain interact to store, organize, recall and use memories. I have a very international team of researchers including individuals from the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Russia, France, Switzerland, India and Taiwan. My job is to keep them motivated, happy and well supplied so that they can pursue their science.

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

I have been studying memory and learning since I began graduate school twenty years ago. I was interested in taking a genetic approach to solving complex biological questions. Although I had no background in neuroscience, I fell into a collaboration between two labs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, which offered me the rare opportunity to learn how to both create and analyze transgenic mice. It really was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

What made you decide to become a scientist?

My interest in genetics stems from the fact that my eldest brother, to whom I am quite close, was born with Down’s syndrome. As I started to learn more about biology, I became fascinated by the impact of his genes on his development and behavior.

What is the best thing about working at RIKEN?

Image of Thomas McHugh at his office © 2014 RIKEN

A common complaint among my friends with labs in the United States or Europe is that the pressures of continual grant writing and teaching leave them with little time to do the job they were actually hired to do—leading and conducting research. At RIKEN, however, I have the time to focus on the science and am still able to run my own experiments, which is fantastic.

Please tell us about your professional and personal goals.

I want to continue to do what I enjoy: coming to the lab every day to ask interesting questions with engaging and motivated people. I would like to stay in Japan for the long term because I enjoy running my lab at RIKEN and my family is very happy living here.

How do you balance family life with your work at RIKEN?

Key to addressing this challenge is an understanding partner, staying focused and setting priorities in your life. I have two young children and my daily goal is to get home before they need to go to bed so that we can get a little playtime together.