Meet Dr. Maren
Interview with Dr. Steve Maren, Claude H. Everett, Jr. ’47 Chair of Liberal Arts
Dr. Maren is a world-renown neuroscientist who joined the department in 2012. He is a recipient of the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for an Early Career Contribution. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and Association for Psychological Science, Past-President of the Pavlovian Society, and is currently the Editor-in-Chief of Behavioural Brain Research. He has been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1995 and is a recipient of the 2015 McKnight Memory and Cognitive Disorders Award. He is the recipient of an endowed chair position supported by Claude H. Everett, Jr, ’47.
Dr. Maren seeks to understand the brain circuits and cellular mechanisms underlying the encoding, storage, retrieval, and extinction of aversive memories, and how dysfunction in these circuits and processes contributes to anxiety disorders.
Dr. Maren, what has been your biggest discovery so far?
As a graduate student, I discovered how synapses in the brain get stronger—a form of ‘neural plasticity’ that is believed to underlie memory storage in the brain. I found that a type of neurotransmitter receptor, called the AMPA receptor, was increased in the hippocampus (a brain area critical for memory) after its synapses were strengthened. In more recent years, other laboratories have confirmed this finding and it is now considered a fundamental mechanism for strengthening synapses in the brain.
What do you think are the most likely long-term consequences of your work for human health or mental health?
My work is now centered on understanding the basic neural mechanisms underlying forms of learning that are central to cognitive-behavioral therapies, such as exposure therapy. As such we believe that our research will improve therapeutic interventions for a host of psychiatric disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and even simple phobias.
What was your first big success as a researcher?
I started my research career as a psychology undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champlain (UIUC), where I was fortunate enough to conduct my own research project in Dr. Michael Gabriel’s laboratory in the Psychology Department. I was interested in how neurons in the amygdala, a brain area involved in fear, responded during avoidance conditioning in rabbits. I found that neurons in the amygdala greatly increased their response to a sound warning the animal of an impending noxious stimulus. This amygdala ‘alarm’ occurred earlier than in any other brain area studied to that point. This work formed the basis of my honors thesis and my first scientific publication.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career? Why was he or she influential?
This is a tough question because I have had many mentors (going back to middle school) that have had a great influence on me. In the end, it was Dr. Michael Gabriel at the University of Illinois who introduced me to the neuroscience of learning and memory, welcomed me into his lab, and entrusted me with an independent research project. He cultivated my interest in neuroscience and personally trained me in many of the methods used in his laboratory. I would not be where I am today without his guidance and support!
What role do graduate students play in your research?
Graduate students are the major driving force for the work that we do in my laboratory. They design experiments, collect and analyze data, write papers and present their work at national conferences. Importantly, they bring their own ideas and passions to their projects and move the work in my laboratory in unique and interesting directions. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with so many talented students!
Do undergraduates work in your lab? What do they get from this experience? Do they tend to go into neuroscience as a career?
I take a small number of undergraduate students into my lab, not because I do not enjoy working with undergraduates, but because I want them to have the kind of experience I did as an undergraduate. Undergraduates in my lab often function as graduate students. They typically begin by assisting a graduate student, and many graduate to their own projects. Many of these students have gone on to pursue academic careers in neuroscience or psychology; and some are now professors themselves!
Was there a teacher, course, or other experience that had a major impact on you as an undergraduate?
After I matriculated to UIUC, a friend suggested that I take a psychology course entitled “The Brain and the Mind”. I had never taken a psychology course and was not a psychology major (at the time). The course was absolutely fascinating—drugs and addiction, sex and feeding, learning and memory, and more—I was hooked! I approached one of the instructors (Gabriel) about research opportunities, changed my major to Psychology, and dove into laboratory work–I had found my true passion. I have now devoted my life’s work to uncovering the mysteries of the brain and sharing this pursuit with the countless students that enroll in my courses and work in my laboratory. In the end, my undergraduate experience introduced me to exciting new worlds of opportunity and cultivated my passion for neuroscience. It is my hope that my own students will be similarly inspired and that I can excite them about the joy of scientific discovery!