When L-J Pilaz decided he wanted to be a scientist, he first thought about studying the behavior of animals.
Then, two years into college in his native France, he discovered a program working on cognitive sciences — studying the behavior of the brain.
Later, when he found a lab to work in for his master’s degree and Ph.D., he worked with the neural stem cells of the cerebral cortex. That’s the outer covering of the brain responsible for high-level functions like thought and memory. “I just fell in love with those guys,” he said.
Eager for adventures abroad, Pilaz moved to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for his first postdoc, then to Duke University in North Carolina for his second.
He has studied aspects of Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that can result in autism spectrum disorders, and microcephaly, or a condition of smaller brain size.
When he heard about an open position at Sanford Research this summer, he did a little research about Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and liked the idea of living there.
Now that he, his wife and their four daughters have moved to Sioux Falls, he’s busy establishing his lab and exploring the outdoors. In this Q&A, he talks about his research, how Sanford Research compares to other lab environments and why he’s happy about the move.
Question: What is your focus in research?
Answer: The big question is, how does the cerebral cortex develop so that it has these different cortical areas, that it enables you to deal with higher cognitive functions like reading, reasoning, decision-making and everything? Because you have those little areas in the brain, and all of these areas are different in terms of numbers of cells, neurons. Everything that’s in it, their architecture is different.
And these differences seem to arise very early during development, like in the embryo already. And these guys, the neural stem cells, make a lot of the job. They decide, “OK, now, guys, it’s time for us to make more of us,” or, “Now it’s time to make neurons.” This is the crux of my work.
I still want to work on the development of the cortex. I still want to work on the neural stem cells. And then I want to try to not just focus on basic questions but try to find diseases that are relevant to neural stem cell defects and brain development.
So I’m going to keep working on projects that are dealing with how those neural stem cells make sure the cortex develops correctly, but also looking at disease where genes that are mutated can lead to defects in the neural stem cells, affect the growth of the cortex and eventually lead to intellectual disabilities and neurodevelopmental diseases.
Q: What are your lab’s main goals?
A: I’m working on a gene right now. I submitted a grant for it. This gene has a good chance to be involved in intellectual disability and in some forms of autism. This gene is in a small region in the genome that can be either duplicated or deleted, and whether there’s more of this gene or less of this gene, they both have consequences. Actually, it’s either going to generate a larger brain or a smaller brain.
So I’m going to keep working on this gene and understand how it works. First, validate. Yeah, we think this is really relevant for disease. And then try to understand how this gene works, with a goal in the very long-term, OK, can we find therapies that could potentially repair the consequences of losing or having more of that gene?
We need to understand: Do (these diseases) arise from defects from embryonic development, or is it something that happens after birth that can be repaired? That’s where I am right now, trying to understand this. This gene has also been involved in a lot of different cancers. So whatever I find in those neural stem cells could potentially be applicable to those cells as well.
Q: How does Sanford Research compare to other labs you’ve worked in?
A: What I love is that the equipment, the big equipment, is shared. It’s awesome.
Another thing I like is everything is in the same building. To go work with mice, I had to walk half a mile or something. And also when I would bring mice from the mouse facility back to the lab, a lot of things can happen, they get stressed and everything, and that can change a lot of the physiology of my embryos. Here, it’s not going to happen this way. I’m just going to have to go through three doors, and then there I am.
And collaborations — everybody’s very helpful. I’m trying to hire people right now, and I don’t have experience with this. So my colleagues just said, ‘OK, just send them our way, too. We’ll interview them for 15 minutes, and we can give you our 2 cents as well.’ Great support. And we have also a lot of support for the little things, ordering things. … Here it’s taken care of by somebody else so we can really focus on the science.
Q: What do you look forward to here?
A: Getting the science done and benefit from the infrastructure and just grow as a lab and as a scientist. That’s what I’m looking forward to. Keep growing and keep discovering amazing things. One big part of my job is making those discoveries. It’s just awesome. When you are on the microscope and you see something that nobody’s ever seen, you get shivers down your spine.
I guess I’m like a discovery junkie. I love this feeling. I love coming back to it, and that keeps me going so I want to keep discovering things and share it with the community.
Q: Had you heard of Sioux Falls? What do you think of it?
A: No, I had not heard of Sioux Falls before. So I rushed to my computer, looked in Wikipedia, looked at the pictures and everything. The first picture you get, of course, is the picture of the falls. Right? It’s beautiful, and my family and I, we spend as much time as possible in nature. We love camping, so that really spoke to me.
We’re really happy. We’re starting to make great connections. One of the important parts of Sioux Falls has been the Sanford Wellness Center. We signed up right away, and the whole family benefits from it.
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