By Kylie Schmitt
Defending a thesis is a rite of passage for many scientists. It is the last hurdle in a students’ academic career that determines whether or not they can add those three letters, Ph.D., behind their name and become a “real” scientist. On February 25th, Ye Sun, who co-workers affectionately call “Sunny”, took part in this rite of passage and became the fourth IMPRS student to successfully defend her thesis.
During her time as a Ph.D. student in the International Max Planck Research School (IMPRS) for Brain and Behavior, Sunny pursued a scientific project under the supervision of MPFI Scientific Director, Ryohei Yasuda, Ph.D. In her ambitious project, she visualized the nanostructure of the neuronal connections during the formation of new memories. The neurons that control memory communicate through sites called dendritic spines – tiny protrusions that receive inputs from other neurons and initiate molecular signals inside the cell. When a spine is strongly stimulated, it grows and strengthens to encode memories.
Sunny’s project was unique because it integrated two advanced imaging techniques: light (or fluorescent) microscopy and electron microscopy. Using light microscopy, she was able to label memory molecules in living neurons and stimulate one particular dendritic spine at a time. After that, by using electron microscopy that provides high-resolution structural information, she was able to study the structure of the same stimulated spine. The combination of both techniques makes the perfect tool for studying the complex relationship between form and function in biology.
While Sunny was spending countless hours studying and conducting research, she was also starting a family of her own at home, with sons David, 3.5 years old and Mark, 6 months. She would not have been able to have her children during this time if it was not for her advisor, Yasuda, who was very understanding and accommodating. She also credits the nature of the Ph.D. work and experiment schedule, which can be very flexible. If she had any child-related emergencies that she had to take care of, she was able to make up hours at night and on the weekends, or work remotely from home to ensure she did not fall behind. Sunny also has a great support system at home. Her husband, friends, and family helped out, especially at times when she needed to focus on her work. Sunny is an inspiration to all working mothers!
Sunny feels privileged to work at an institute like MPFI that supports the development of novel methods. She plans to keep working in the electron microscopy field, combining light and electron microscopy to answer other biological questions, as well as broadening her knowledge in these techniques.
Congratulations Dr. Ye Sun! All of us at MPFI know you have a “sunny” future ahead of you!