(Note: the PI, or principal investigator, is the research group leader)
Ask her if she ever had a moment of zen and Eugenia Chiappe won’t hesitate. It was during the winter of 2006, in New York, when by day she wrote her doctoral thesis on the active motor process of hearing and balancing, and by night she performed in a acrobatic circus troupe at various local theaters.
Eugenia Chiappe is so fascinated by the way living organisms manage to evaluate their own movements, so as to be able to flawlessly perform complex motor tasks, that in trying to understand it she has led – even before she could put her finger on it – a sort of double life, divided between science and the performing arts.
Not only has she shaped her successful career as a neuroscientist around the study of how the brain succeeds in finely controlling motor behavior, but she has herself experienced what it means to acquire the exquisite motor skills needed to be a professional acrobat.
The neuroscience that makes Chiappe tick is understanding how sensory inputs and internal motor signals interact to enable the brain to monitor one’s movement. In some sense, she started studying the interaction between sensory and motor signals during her PhD student days at Rockefeller University, in New York City – and is still studying it today with the team she leads at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown.
Athletic-looking, easy-going and prone to a hearty laugh, her eyes sparkle with enthusiasm in her handsome face as she unrolls before us her rather unusual life story. It is literally a tale of scientific pursuits intertwined with the art of soaring above people’s head on a trapeze. Those who think neuroscience and flying acrobatics have little in common should reconsider.
But how did these two parallel sides of her life come together? Recalling her circus experience, Chiappe explains that sometimes, when you’re moving and ready to leap, your brain somehow senses you didn’t set your feet right; and then, your eyes rush to your feet before you know it.
That clinched it for her: “At a certain point, my circus experience got into my science, in the sense that my scientific goal became understanding what the brain does to adjust for movement errors before you realize you are failing to perform”, she adds. Or, in other words, “understanding what happens in the brain when it is generating movement – and how it manages to know, before you even consciously realize it, that you did something wrong, that you immediately need to correct if you want the movement to come out right.”
A house full of people and books
Chiappe was born in 1973 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She is the eldest of three daughters in a family where both physical and artistic activities have always been held in high regard. Her mother, who works at “enjoying life”, studied philosophy, and her father, who is “an artist, a rebel”, is a professional illustrator.
“My house was always full of very interesting, amusing people, who talked about politics and art” she recalls. “I remember being surrounded by books, but I also played a lot in the street with my friends from the neighborhood. And every Sunday morning, we all went to classical music concerts for children!”
In her teens, Chiappe dreamed of traveling around the world studying animals, like Jacques Cousteau. “Science entered my life through what it meant in terms of way of life”, she says. In the square near her house, she collected bugs, and at home she spent hours on the balcony looking at the leaves on trees. “From high school on, I loved Chemistry, because it dealt with tiny things we couldn’t see.”
There were no scientists in the family. Her father wanted her to be an architect, so she thought about it… and chose science instead. In fact, she was around 16 when she started passing college-level exams at the Faculty of Science of the University of Buenos Aires. This was even before she finished high school – something that was then possible within the Argentinian public university system.
It was also during her teens that Chiappe first enrolled in a circus troupe to learn the art of the trapeze. “I loved the trapeze right away”, she says. She also learned juggling and malambo (Argentinian folkloric tap dancing). Later, in 1993, she would officially join a “circus family”. This meant taking classes “three times a week, from 9pm to midnight”, and all the while going to college and having to earn her pocket money (“my parents only gave us money until we finished high school”, she explains).
It was in the early 1990’s, a year after starting to take Chemistry and Biology courses as a university student, that Chiappe chose to pursue a career in Biology, under the influence of one of her molecular biology professors. “I needed to find a scientific mentor – and it was Daniel Goldstein who hooked me on Biology. He was very important to me and also to the modernization of Biology in Argentina”, she says.
He also insisted that she should do her PhD abroad. So in 1999, Chiappe applied to some of the most high-ranking American universities – Columbia, Rockefeller, Caltech, Harvard, NYU, UCSF, UCSD, Tufts. “I had no idea that I was jumping right into the middle of the US scientific elite, I was very naive and didn’t have a clue about the magnitude of the opportunities these places could open for me!”, she exclaims.
Also in following her mentor’s advice, she applied for – and won – a fellowship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. And in the meantime, decided she would go to Rockefeller University because it was in New York City (“my urban habits”), where she arrived in 2000.
At the time, Chiappe was thinking of studying development, not neuroscience. “I wanted to study how a group of cells generates a form, what are the mechanical forces involved; this also had to do with esthetic form and design…”, she muses.
Stumbling on neuroscience
She started her PhD in one lab and, in the middle of it, switched labs and PhD projects, joining James Hudspeth’s lab at Rockefeller. She had stumbled on neuroscience. “In 2002, everything came tumbling down when I discovered computational neuroscience during a six-week summer course at the Marine Biology Lab in Woods Hole”, says Chiappe. “During this course, I understood I wanted to study the processing of sensory signals that generate perception and internal representations, and how to extract information about what neurons are doing.”
After defending her thesis, she went on, in 2007, to do her post-doc at the Janelia Research Campus (in Ashburn, Virginia) in the lab of Vivek Jayaraman.
It was just before this move that she experienced her “moment of zen”: wrapping up her PhD while doing nightly shows at NYC theaters, where she jumped through loops, danced and performed trapeze duos with a feminist group of circus acrobats and dancers called LAVA. “After each show, we had dinner with the other actors, and then I went home to a hot shower, ibuprofene and sleep. The next morning, back to my thesis, and this went on for eight weeks,” she recalls. “I loved it. That’s who I am!”
Next stop: Lisbon, where Chiappe arrived in 2012 (a year after her partner, Leopoldo Petreanu, who is also a neuroscientist and group leader at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown (CCU) . In 2010, they had met Zach Mainen, one of the founders of the Champalimaud Neuroscience Program, during a meeting in the US, and talked to him about future job possibilities. The CCU was recruiting neuroscientists.
“We were looking for positions at various places, but we thought this was a chance for both of us to have equal professional opportunities, and we really loved the CCU people we met”, she says.
“I am very happy here”, she adds. “There are a lot of young people, we discuss science all the time; and we are all working on the same problem, but each from a different angle.”
Planning to go anywhere else from here? “With two children, it has become more difficult”, Chiappe admits. “And right now, I see no reason for leaving. But I also don’t want to shut any doors. I am a very adventurous person!
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)