(Note: the PI, or principal investigator, is the research group leader)
From chemistry to physics to neuroscience, from Spain to the United Kingdom, back to Spain again and then to Lisbon, Gonzalo de Polavieja’s career has certainly had more than one twist. Today, he is the principal investigator, or PI, of the Collective Behavior Lab at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown.
When asked about what he considers the most scientifically memorable moment of his life, it doesn’t take Gonzalo de Polavieja very long to reply. “What comes to my mind is a Natural Science teacher I had when I was 12”, he reminisces. “She was 84 years-old, and she came into the classroom with a big piece of a whale’s spine. And then she raised the bone in the air – and broke it on her knee.”
Her name was Juana Álvarez-Prida and, if anything, she gave de Polavieja – who knew he wanted to be a scientist since he was 10 – all the more reasons to think that it would be the right choice for him. “What became part of me from that day on was the passion for doing a whole bunch of things. She was always doing something”, he adds.
De Polavieja was born in 1969 in Madrid, and he spent his childhood and youth (“until I finished college”, he specifies) in the house where he was born. His father was an engineer and his mother a lab technician who quit her job after the children were born (de Polavieja has a sister), “and later worked as a volunteer in Third World aid”, he says.
Although there was never a particularly scientific atmosphere at home, “my family was very open to the world in general”, Polavieja tells us. “I went to a school for kids of artists, painters, movie-makers, and was in close contact with art until I was 14.”
When, at the age of ten, he decided he wanted to study science, it wasn’t very clear why in his mind. “It just seemed natural. After wanting to be a football player, I decided to become a scientist and have never had any doubts about it”, he says as his lips part into an almost imperceptible smile.
Next stop, in 1987: the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, where de Polavieja says he liked all the sciences. “I liked Biology for its questions and Physics for its answers, so I studied Chemistry, which lies in between”, he adds.
He specialized in Molecular Physics – “a very mathematical sort of physical-chemistry”, obtained his degree in five years and then went on to do his thesis in a theoretical branch of the same field. Except… he didn’t like his lab’s atmosphere (“they were working quickly for the next paper instead of thinking more deeply”) – so he quit.
The next 13 months de Polavieja spent enrolled in social service, which at the time had just become possible to do in Spain as a substitute for military service. “I worked for an ambulance dispatch service, as a schoolteacher and gave recreative science classes at the City Hall.”
But that didn’t stop him from doing research in Physics – and he managed to publish four papers in “good journals”, such as Physical Letters A and others. “I worked alone on theoretical quantum mechanics and I gave my home address when I submitted the papers”, he says. “I remember getting letters at home for reviewing them that began like this: ‘Dear Prof. de Polavieja…’”.
It was almost certainly thanks to these publications, according to de Polavieja, that he won, in 1996, a Marie Curie European fellowship to go to Oxford University and do a PhD in Theoretical Physics. “I finished it in 1999 and went on to do a postdoc at Cambridge University.
It was there that de Polavieja’s definitive scientific career would truly start to take form. “I started working in a neuroscience lab, but I had doubts about whether I could join together biology and mathematics.” He clearly could – and did. So much so that, for the period 2000-2003, he won a so-called transition fellowship from the Wellcome Trust to do mathematical biology.
“Those three years gave me the opportunity to get training in many places, and I started to become interested in doing experiments and electrophysiology”, he explains.
But once again, it wasn’t within the group he first joined at Cambridge – where he worked on the fruit fly brain with Simon Laughlin – that Polavieja would finally find his place and start publishing papers on neuroscience. “Since I had a training fellowship, I was allowed a great deal of independence, so in fact I went to work in Mikko Juusola’s group at the Department of Physiology in Cambridge on the visual system of the fly.”
Back in Spain in 2004, de Polavieja adds yet another “twist” to his already sinuous scientific path: he sets up an electrophysiology lab for the study of leeches… in the Theoretical Physics lab of his alma-mater, the Universidade Autónoma de Madrid. “I think I got a contract to work there because of my earlier physics papers”, he says about this job too.
He would remain there for four years, until around 2007, and start publishing neuroscience results (“one in Nature Neuroscience on neuronal coding of leech neurons, several in PNAS on how brains are wired”) – which this time would earn him tenure at the Instituto Cajal.
It was at Cajal’s that with his group, composed of almost ten people, de Polavieja started working, in part, on what has now become his main topic of research at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown: how animals decide in collectives.
Then the economic crisis reached Spain in 2009, and by 2011, sensing that scientific research would be much affected by it, he startsed looking around for other places to work – in other countries. “I got a several offers, but I liked Champalimaud – not only the place and the language, but also the way they look at science here, which I found was more fun than in other places”, he says. With his wife and two children, he moved to Lisbon in 2014.
Bringing part of his team from Cajal’s to Champalimaud (“we are now 8-9, I hired people here”), de Polavieja starts working full-time on collective behavior, in fish and in humans.
“At our lab, we do paper-and-pencil maths, computer simulations and biological experiments”, he adds. “My passion has always been to discover the mathematics of things. As Galileo famously said, the laws of Nature are written in the language of Mathematics.”
What about returning to Spain one day? “Every year, we ask ourselves the same question”, says de Polavieja. “Of course, there are family considerations, but I’d like to stay here or go somewhere else altogether. I think it’s fun moving from place to place. I like it!”
Ana Gerschenfeld works as a Science Writer at the Science Communication Office at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme
Edited by: Catarina Ramos(Science Communication office). Photo credit: Tor Stensola(CCU)