Steve Ramirez credits his career in neuroscience to a broken centrifuge, which prompted a chance encounter with his college crush at a functioning machine across the hall. At the time, Ramirez was trying a bit of everything in academia, but the pair’s fateful conversation led him to seek guidance from the first department head of Boston University’s fledgling neuroscience program. The crush fizzled out, but Ramirez developed a passion for neuroscience that has only grown stronger.
Initially, it was the supportive lab community that convinced him to stay in the field, Ramirez tells The Scientist. “The people had this ‘All for one, one for all’ mentality. Everyone worked on their own scientific questions or projects, but people worked together and helped each other out with analyses or surgeries or data collection.” But eventually, the science itself—specifically, the neural mechanisms of memory, which he calls “our access to the richness of our past”—captured his interest.
After graduating in 2010, Ramirez joined the lab of Nobel Prize–winning neuroscientist Susumu Tonegawa at MIT for his PhD. There, Ramirez learned to use genetic and neurological manipulations to study the molecular basis of learning and memory in rodents, as well as to probe how those memories could be experimentally altered. For example, Ramirez used optogenetic techniques to activate specific brain cells in mice with surgically implanted lights, finding that triggering activity in memory-related neurons that were active during happy experiences reduced depressive behaviors.
Ramirez’s research landed him a fellowship at Harvard University’s Center for Brain Science, an academic incubator of sorts. “It’s three years of really trying to position yourself as a leader and catapult your career,” Ramirez says. “I loved it because it was as much intellectual breathing room as I could have ever hoped for.” As a fellow, Ramirez was able to start his own lab, which he moved to Boston University in 2017 at the fellowship’s end.
His work today explores the phenomenon of recall; a 2021 preprint from his group demonstrates how optogenetic manipulation in mice can restore memories that were poorly stored—and thought to be lost—due to sleep deprivation. His research also focuses on emotions such as fear that are often associated with memories, and how these associations might someday be altered.
Although his mouse work involves invasive surgeries, Ramirez says that he hopes the fundamental principles underlying memory manipulation will carry over to humans. For example, offering MDMA to a person with post-traumatic stress disorder prior to having them recall traumatic experiences may help their brain process those memories in a way that is less painful, he speculates.
Sheena Josselyn, a neuroscientist studying memory at the University of Toronto and the Hospital for Sick Kids, says that she is always “so fascinated with what [Ramirez] finds.” Because the two research similar questions from different perspectives, she adds, discoveries made in one lab often benefit the other. “All this silly competition bitterness, it takes all the fun out of science. If I can’t celebrate someone publishing a paper in my field, maybe it’s time for me to pack it up.”
That sort of open collaboration and support is exactly what science needs, Ramirez says. In the past, when he has learned other labs are working on similar experiments, he has reached out to share resources and findings instead of racing to publish first. As the child of two undocumented immigrants, Ramirez strives to create an academic culture where anyone is able to perform high-quality scientific research. “I think when science becomes about winning, it loses the most basic human part of what drives it, which is curiosity to make an unknown known,” he says. “Anyone can do science, it’s just a matter of creating the opportunity for people to do science.”
Denise Cai, a friend from graduate school who is now a neuroscientist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, attests to Ramirez’s generosity. When the two were beginning their careers, “we made a pact that if we ever became faculty with our own labs and research programs, we would collaborate rather than compete,” Cai says. Ramirez, she adds, “leads with positivity and is always the first to offer help when needed. He is both a leader and a servant at the same time.”