Steve Ramirez, 26, Neuroscience
When Steve Ramirez was a freshman in high school, his cousin went into labor. At some point during her C-section, she was deprived of oxygen for a few minutes. That's all it took for her to go into a coma. She still hasn’t woken up.
“I remember visiting her for the first time and asking the doctor what brain areas were damaged,” Ramirez says. “All I heard was mumbles of jargon. But the idea stuck: Broken brain pieces give rise to broken thoughts, to a broken mind. How was that possible?”
Afterward, Ramirez habitually Googled terms like "brain matter" and “brain cells” in an effort to understand what he calls “the lump of meatloaf in between your ears.”
During his undergraduate years at Boston University, Ramirez volunteered in a lab that studied how memories form. Today he’s a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working on locating brain cells that hold specific memories, then triggering and manipulating those cells—those memories—using laser beams.
(Photo: Steve Ramirez)
So far his experiments have worked only on mice, but “because so much of the underlying neural circuitry is exquisitely preserved across the evolutionary ladder,” he predicts that our brains will respond similarly. That means that we may soon be able to erase unwanted memories—remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? More than just blocking out bad break-ups, though, Ramirez hopes that his findings will be able to treat depression by artificially infusing positive memories, or mute the trauma for PTSD sufferers.
Ramirez was born and raised in Everett, Massachusetts, but everyone else in his family is from El Salvador. “My parents came from a war-torn country in the late '70s to give my older brother and sister a fighting chance at an education and health. They had come here illegally.” His family’s strenuous journey to become American is a constant source of motivation for Ramirez: At the end of each of his school semesters, his father told him: “People can take away a lot of things from you in this world but an education is something tucked somewhere in your brain that no one else can deconstruct.” When Ramirez and his siblings got into college and grad school, “it was something of unparalleled humility and gratification,” he said. “No matter how hard science can be, no matter how much frustration an experiment can elicit, at the end of the day I'm living in a privileged pocket of society for which I am infinitely grateful. My complaints center on the process of science and not on the process of getting out of civil war or making ends meet.”
When asked which of his accomplishments he is proudest of, Ramirez cites two: One, running the Boston Marathon annually (“the personal reward is indescribable, and it gives me a solid excuse to sneak in an Oreo milkshake here and there”) and two, his first lab discovery, made with his mentor Xu Liu, that light can activate a single memory in the brain. Since then, the duo has grown into a dozen-person team that dissects and manipulates memories—“old and new, fear and pleasure, the works.”
Ramirez credits Liu with his success. "He's simply the most talented, approachable, and equally optimistic co-worker I've come across," Ramirez says. "Xu taught me everything I know—how to do brain surgery, how to shoot lasers into the brain, how to trick brain cells to respond to light, how to write up a paper for publication, how to network, how to give presentations, how to be a team player. I'm the scientist I am today because of his mentorship."
Within the decade, Ramirez aims to be running his own lab as a full-fledged professor. “I actually fell in love with two things in college,” he says, “researching the brain and teaching it to students.” In his opinion, too many academics fall short at the latter. “As a result, students fail to be inspired by the miracle that science can be. That's not OK. Think about it this way: If your class has 30 students, each paying $50,000 a year to be enrolled, then you had better teach a class worthy of $1.5 million or you're letting them down. That's the bar I set for myself when teaching.”
It’s a bar he’s cleared so capably that MIT handed him the Angus MacDonald Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. Ramirez has also given a TED talk that, at press time, has more than 750,000 views. He recently started teaching at Tufts too, a how-can-it-not-be-popular course called “Neuroscience and Hollywood.”
He’s inspired by writer-director Christopher Nolan, the man behind Inception, the Dark Knight trilogy, and Memento. “His movies have actually been a large influence on the kinds of science I enjoy conducting,” Ramirez says. “I'd love to just pick his brain on where he sees science going, where he sees cinema going, and what his muses are. Movies like Inception can ruffle the mind feathers of young neuroscientists eager to pluck from the tree of science fiction and ground it into experimental reality.”
Ramirez has advice for aspiring neuroscientists: “Join a lab and get your hands dirty as soon as possible. It's the way of experiencing whether or not research tickles your hippocampus. And don't just join a lab or program for the name. Even at places like MIT and Harvard, people can quickly become unhappy because the sexiness goes away very rapidly and then you realize that research is a great equalizer because it requires hard work from everyone.”
Ramirez succeeds in this competitive environment, perhaps, because he takes what he calls a “cup-is-three-quarters-full approach.” He sees himself as “an eternal optimist and someone who wants to contribute his share to neuroscience during the brief hiccup of time we have available to us.”
“Things are still coming full circle,” he adds. “The brain pieces the doctor had mentioned make sense now. There's still so much more work to be done, of course, but if I can't wake someone up from a comatose state, I can surely try to understand it.”