Get to Know: Chris McBain, Ph.D.

Chris McBain, Ph.D., Acting Scientific Director Division of Intramural ResearchHow did you become interested in science and research?

Like many scientists, I first became interested in science through a chemistry set that my parents bought for me for my birthday. My sister and I would spend hours trying all the chemical reactions and color changes that the kit guided us through—often with explosive results!

However, it was really the influence of my high school chemistry and biology teachers that captured my scientific attention. I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and my high school teachers would lead us on wild expeditions to test the quality of sea water in the various harbors in and around the coastline of the Firth of Forth estuary. My memory of those trips was always being in relentless wind and rain and casting a collection device (usually an empty milk jug) into the icy waters to retrieve our samples, that we then inspected with a magnifying glass to determine the health of the water.

My teachers also led us through lipid extraction (we didn’t even know what a lipid was!) from a sheep’s brain. The process of separating components by thin layer chromatography and watching our hard-earned isolates being sucked up by the house vacuum, never to be seen again, was a fantastic learning process.

These early science endeavors taught me that doing science could be fun and that it didn’t have to be shrouded in seriousness; all our successes and failures were met with the same level of enthusiasm and energy from our teachers. Their encouragement to enjoy science was at the root of their teaching. It’s a lesson that remains with me until this day.

What brought you to NICHD?

As a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Ray Dingledine at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, I was engaged in research into the role of glutamate receptor-mediated synaptic transmission in hippocampal circuits within the mammalian central nervous system. At that time, several glutamate receptor subunits had just been cloned and research was moving extremely rapidly. I was aware of Dr. Mark Mayer’s pioneering research into glutamate receptors at NICHD. He was recently named chief of the new Laboratory of Cellular and Synaptic Neurophysiology, and he was looking to recruit a tenure-track investigator interested in studying glutamatergic circuits in the hippocampal slice preparation. At that time, there were few, if any, in vitro slice electrophysiologists on the NIH campus. I applied for this tenure-track position and was hired to start my unit in 1993. It is hard to believe that was more than 28 years ago.

What types of training, experiences, or traits are essential for success in your position?

As a new postdoctoral fellow, I moved from Cambridge, England, to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It was a huge cultural shift for me. Dr. Dingledine’s lab at UNC was filled with extremely smart people from all over the world. Although often intimidating, it was a cultural and scientific high point in my training. I learned to appreciate and respect other people’s cultures and opinions, and importantly, that the diverse opinions of such a team, when focused on an important scientific problem, could lead to unexpected and rewarding outcomes.

In my own lab, I have tried to emulate that atmosphere. I really enjoy having people from all over the planet come do research in my lab. In addition, I have always felt that everyone in my lab is an equal—whether you are a post-bac or a staff scientist, everyone has a voice that can be heard without judgment. Having this attitude has led us to some incredible discoveries that have come on the back of seemingly minor observations by very young trainees. I also have a laid-back approach to life and try to be as receptive to other people’s opinions and ideas as much as possible; I have been fortunate to attract some very smart and generous people over my time at NICHD. Fostering an environment where the lab is full of ambitious individuals who are generous with their ideas to trainees of all levels has been the single greatest achievement in my time here.

Finally, I like to have fun, but I also understand that scientific research can be difficult, and progress often takes many attempts on several different roads to get to the end result. I want that path to be a rewarding experience and try hard to teach my trainees to step back when things are not working and try to look at the question from a different perspective or take a different approach. Having a sense of humor helps.

What do you find most valuable about working at NICHD?

One of the greatest aspects of being in the NICHD Division of Intramural Research (DIR) is the diversity of high-quality scientific research undertaken across the institute. There are few institutes at NIH where the DIR research spans so many biological systems to tackle a multitude of topics related to child health and human development. Having colleagues who are interested in such a broad array of topics means that I am always being exposed to research that I know very little about. Consequently, having such a diverse array of colleagues has allowed conversations and collaborations that would otherwise be difficult in another environment.

What is your favorite research finding out of everything you have worked on?

When I was a graduate student, the conventional wisdom in synaptic transmission was that the electrical impulse traveling down the axon of a cell communicated the information to all its downstream targets via the exact same mechanism and with the same outcome, i.e., all targets received the same information by the exact same process. In the early 1990s, I had two extremely talented postdocs, Drs. Gianmaria Maccaferri and Katalin Toth who helped change our understanding of this concept. Using an array of electrophysiological techniques, they demonstrated that an electrical signal travelling down the axon of a single granule cell neuron in the hippocampus could have a differential impact on its downstream targets that depended on the cell identity or type of target. In simplistic terms, it’s like the upstream cell is speaking in one language, but the two downstream targets translate this into a language relevant for their own function. It was an entirely new concept that a common signal could result in a long-lasting strengthening of transmission at one synapse, while the very same signal would weaken transmission at a synapse at a different target only a few microns away. Unknown to us, several labs were coming to similar conclusions at the same time. The fruits of these observations fueled our research for much of the next decade, leading to numerous exciting observations that have challenged long-held beliefs in synaptic transmission.

If you have advanced along your career within the institute, can you summarize your career steps and how you successfully navigated the changes?

I started as a tenure-track investigator in at NICHD in 1993. In 2000, I was granted tenure and appointed chief of the newly formed Laboratory of Cellular and Synaptic Physiology. I was then able to recruit two tenure-track candidates to DIR—Drs. Mark Stopfer and Dax Hoffman. This was an extremely rewarding time as the neuroscience population in both NICHD and across the NIH campus was rapidly expanding. I worked hard over the next decade to make sure that NICHD had a voice in that neuroscience community.

In 2011, I became program chief of the Developmental Neurobiology Branch. In 2009, I was appointed deputy scientific director under Dr. Owen Rennert and remained in this position under subsequent scientific directors. In 2021, I was appointed acting director of DIR. Working my way up the ranks of the institute was extremely rewarding because of the colleagues that I have had around me. My early lab members really shaped my ability to lead a successful Lab (capital L), as well as not lose focus of my own research lab (lower case l).

Importantly during this period, I have been involved in several Graduate Partnership Programs (GPP) that have sprung up on campus over the years. As a founding member of the group of investigators (led by the tireless Dr. Mike Lenardo of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases!) that established the NIH-Oxford/Cambridge/Wellcome Trust Program, I was able to work with other like-minded investigators in other institutes and forge some very long-lasting interactions that remain to this day. Since that time, I have also been closely affiliated with other NIH-GPPs, including the NIH Brown Neuroscience program. The ability to bring graduate students from a wide array of international universities to campus has been one of the most enriching experiences during my time in the intramural research program.

What advice can you offer to people who are at an earlier stage of their career?

My best advice to early career scientists is to find a lab led by someone who is open and receptive to ideas. Find a lab where people are successfully doing cutting edge research and having fun doing it! Before joining that lab, talk to all members of the lab at all stages of their research trajectory. Is this a lab where people are enjoying their experience? What is the culture like in this lab? Are they asking questions that are consistent with your interests and attitude toward doing science?

My other advice is to find a great mentor—someone who has your best interests in mind. I have been fortunate to have had several outstanding mentors across my entire career, many of whom are still great friends and colleagues. More importantly, I have had numerous trainees come through my lab who have enriched my life and taught me a lot about different attitudes and cultures. Science is a two-way street; experiences and interactions are everything!


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