JOE FETCHO: There are sort of two reasons for why it's important. One of them is simply for understanding of the world in which we live. I'm really interested in extracting principles that underlie how circuits in the brain and spinal cord produce behavior in as broad a range of animals as possible, of course including humans. And that allows us to get insight into any animal we might come across. If we know the principal organization of the circuits, we can make predictions about how particular animals will produce movements, for example.
But the other reason of course is that once you understand the basics of how circuits work and how behaviors are produced, that is the foundation or substrate for figuring out what has happened when those circuits don't work properly, when they're disrupted in movement cases, in diseases like Parkinson's and Huntington's disease and things like that. And I'm of the view that in things as complex as brains, you cannot easily figure out what has gone wrong in a brain that is ill. You have to first figure out how the thing works in a normal situation. And then you'll be able to figure out how the disruptions have impaired the function of that.
Well, my interest has always been in biology of animals. And I had a lot of animals when I was young of all different kinds-- alligators and turtles and mammals and everything. But I especially liked snakes, and so I was motivated to understand snakes originally and how snakes move. So that's kind of where it began-- total curiosity. I was very naive about biology.
Books that had the most impact on me were the ones that really inspired the biologist in me early in my life. And so there's one called The Keeper and the Kept, by a guy named Carl Caulfield, who wrote these semi-popular snake books, but from a very biological perspective. And I just read every one of those books early in my life. And that's what really sort of made me into a biologist at the start. And so those are the ones that if I said, what sort of changed my life, it was exposure to those books.
Most of my biggest risks have been scientific risks, I would say. I'm fairly risk-averse in personal life. And scientifically, it would've been when we shifted into using zebrafish as a model, which at the time wasn't really used very much for figuring out circuits and so on. And so we could have just totally crashed at that point. And I did it in the middle of a grant to do something else.
So I had a grant from the National Institute of Health to work on some other project. And I said, no. If this works, this'll be way more important than what I was working on. And so it shifted entirely my lab. Within a few months, as soon as we saw that it was going to work, no one in my lab wanted to work on the other project anymore. We shifted totally to the zebrafish. But it could have crashed, in which case maybe my career would have crashed too.
You're going to fail a lot if you research. But learning how to navigate through failure is key to research success. One of the biggest things you'll learn, and you only learn this, I think, by trying hard things and failing, is when to cut your losses, when to persist because the big discovery could be inches away. And it's hard to communicate that to someone.
And you only get that, I think, by taking some risks and learning how to navigate through them. You can't adopt all risky projects, though, because if you fail in all of them, your career could end. But learning to to navigate risk, I think, is probably the most important thing in a research career. If you're not taking risks and trying hard things, then you're really not at the front of your area.
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Joe Fetcho, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and associate chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, discusses his career and offers advice for young researchers.