Blake Richards

  • Position: post-doc

  • Originally from: Toronto

  • Degree(s): BSc, PhD

  • Joined in: October 2011

Where did you study before coming to Toronto: I was originally interested in artificial intelligence, so I did my undergraduate degree in cognitive science and artificial intelligence here at the University of Toronto. During that time I discovered just how hard it is to get a computer to do all of the things we take for granted, because our brains have evolved to make these things easy for us – things like visual recognition, motor control, and learning. As such, my fascination with the brain blossomed and I decided to pursue neuroscience instead. So, I went on to do a master’s and a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Oxford. While there, I studied visual plasticity in the developing Xenopus tectum with Dr. Colin Akerman, using in vivo electrophysiology and calcium imaging. This gave me the opportunity to directly probe how some of the remarkable visual abilities of the brain develop and how they’re guided by the environment in early life.

Currently working on: My central project here at the Frankland Lab is an exploration of how memories are altered over time. While we sleep our brains replay electrical patterns from earlier in the day, and evidence suggests that this helps to reorganize memory traces into a more distributed form. There is also evidence that this process helps consolidate our memories and reformulate them into more generalizable forms of information. My research looks at how specific, genetically defined sub-types of neurons in the circuits of the neocortex and hippocampus help to co-ordinate activity during sleep. I’ll be looking at whether disrupting the signals that these sub-types of neurons generate will alter the processes of memory reorganization and consolidation. To do this, I’ll be using a combination of transgenic technologies, electrophysiology, behavioural testing, and brain-wide gene expression mapping.

Favorite paper: I’d have to go with this one:

Hodgkin, AL and Huxley AF (1952). A quantitative description of membrane current and its application to conduction and excitation in nerve. Journal of Physiology, 117:500-544.

To put it simply: Hodgkin & Huxley nailed it – they really managed to develop a fundamentally correct model of how neurons generate and propagate action potentials. Reading the paper is fascinating, because they knew very little at the time about what they were studying, and some of their conjectures regarding the mechanisms underlying the action potential were an interesting mix of the right general idea with the wrong specifics. But, with the exception of some details that have emerged more recently, their model is still the gold standard. When I was doing my PhD I ran some similar experiments to theirs in the Xenopus embryos that I was working with, and their equations perfectly described my data! It’s the kind of science that sends a shiver up my spine: 6 decades later, different person, different species, different equipment, same result. Science at its best in my opinion.

Why science? If I weren’t a scientist, I would be… In my opinion, science is the ultimate expression of a sense of worship for the world we live in. It’s a devotion to things as they actually are, and a desire to put together a portrait of the natural world that we can put to practical use to improve our lives. I can’t really imagine anything more exciting for my day-to-day life than helping to fill this portrait out. If I weren’t a scientist… Who knows… I once thought I wanted to be a musician, but I don’t think I’m actually good enough at music to make a living at that. I am a policy wonk, though, so perhaps I would have gone into consulting or politics.

Interests outside the lab: I’m an avid runner and swimmer, and love nothing more than a long run along a peaceful body of water. I also consider myself a bass music aficionado, and I love exploring the ever evolving worlds of dub step, house, and drum n’ bass. But, my major activity outside the lab is enjoying the company of my lovely wife and our family and friends – with good food and drink to accompany of course.

Favorite place in Toronto: As someone who grew up in Toronto, that’s a hard question. I love that Toronto is a city of distinct neighbourhoods – each with their own qualities. Whether it’s Little Italy, The Danforth, Chinatown, Gerrard Street East, the Islands, or Ossington, etc., each has their own appeal to me. But, at the end of the day, I’d have to go with Kensington Market. There’s nowhere else I find both interesting and relaxing in the same way. It’s perfect for a sunny Sunday out.