This month’s Faculty Spotlight highlights Dr. Mike Smotherman. An Associate Professor in the Department of Biology and Chair for Texas A&M’s Institute for Neuroscience (TAMIN), Dr. Smotherman uses bats to study neuroethology in animals with unique or exceptional behaviors.
Mike Smotherman received his B.S. in Biology from Occidental College in 1989. While at Occidental Mike logged over 1000 hours at sea working on the R/V Vantuna as a research technician and marine biology instructor. After graduating he worked as an environmental engineer for a year before deciding to pursue graduate studies. He earned an M.S. in Zoology for studying horseshoe crab circadian rhythms at the University of Maine in 1992, and then moved back to Los Angeles to pursue a PhD in Physiology at UCLA. He first began working with bats as a post-doc at UCLA in 1999. He was a Grass Fellow at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in 2002, where he studied the neural circuits of color-changing behavior in giant squids. He joined the Biology Department at Texas A&M as an assistant professor in 2004, and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2010. He is a participating faculty member in the interdisciplinary Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) graduate program and is the current chair of Texas A&M’s Institute for Neuroscience (TAMIN). Mike is happily married to Dr. Michele Garant, OB/Gyn (Affiliates for Women’s Health, College Station) with whom he has two children.
Tell us about your research and what lead you to your field.
My main research topic is sensory neurobiology and the evolution of behaviors. I’m fascinated by the fact that some animals can perceive things that humans can’t. This led me directly to neuroethology, a field founded on the principle that a pragmatic approach to addressing the impossibly difficult question of how brains work is to find an animal that possesses a unique or exceptional behavior and then ask how their nervous system was adapted to support that behavior. Bats are a good example, as their entire auditory system is greatly hypertrophied relative to the rest of their brain to support their biosonar behavior. Much of what’s now known about the mammalian auditory system was first demonstrated in bats because it was easier to correlate patterns of cellular activity to features of the auditory scene in bats than other animals. This comparative philosophy still provides efficient and productive strategy for uncovering fundamental principles of neuroscience.
The great neurobiologists of the last century figured out how single neurons function, but they didn’t have good tools to explore how large population of cells work together to generate behaviors. Recently there have been extraordinary advances in miniaturized and wireless electronics, chronically-implanted brain interfaces with high channel count electrodes, optogenetics, in vivo imaging, and big data tools that have the potential to dramatically reveal how complex behaviors emerge from massive neural networks. The 21st century is bringing forth a revolution of cool neuroscience things like artificial sensory and motor systems, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and kick-ass avatar-space robots.
Why did you decide to go to graduate school?
I got pretty lucky landing a good, high-paying job just out of college with an environmental engineering firm in Los Angeles. However, a year into it I couldn’t bear the corporate environment, wearing a suit and tie every day, and especially having lawyers reviewing my reports and telling me what to do. Yep, after a year of that I decided I’d either become a research scientist or a night-stalking crime-fighting vigilante, or maybe both? Hey look, I’m batman!
How did you decide which graduate school to go to?
Originally my heart was set on marine biology. I went to the University of Maine because its biology department was mostly marine biologists. I really loved it there: beautiful campus and delicious lobster po’boys for lunch. However, after two years of wet feet, cold winters and getting chased by actual black bears, I’d learned a lot more about what it means to build a career in academia. Funding for marine biology was practically non-existent and the writing was on the wall. At Maine I started my graduate career studying migration behavior and through that I developed a passion for neuroscience, and frankly it hard to ignore the fact that career opportunities were a lot brighter in the biomedical fields. So I transferred to UCLA and joined a lab of auditory neuroscientists that did both physiology and fieldwork, which just felt perfect. The fact that my girlfriend and future wife happened to live in L.A. and worked just down the street at the Budweiser plant might also have influenced my decision a tiny bit. I suppose the truth is I ended up at UCLA because it was a big school with lots of opportunities and good stipends, and at that moment it happened to dovetail well with my personal life. Timing is everything.
- Only using your super powers for good.
- Surrounding yourself with mega-cool friends and always make time for them.
- Always showing up on time and help whenever and wherever you can.
Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?
Yes, my lab always has several undergraduate research assistants. Depending on their level of interest that can be involved in anything from animal care and husbandry to neurophysiology and anatomical studies or washing the bat mobile. We usually need two or three reliable students to be our bat trainers, people that spend an hour or two every day with a small group of bats teaching them to behave in a particular way during our acoustic sonar experiments. Everybody that handles the bats needs to be vaccinated for rabies, which takes time and isn’t free, so those jobs are reserved for the most reliable kick-ass student researchers. We can always find a place for a talented student that has the time and dedication to get involved. Several previous undergraduate students have been co-authors on papers and book chapters.
Describe someone in your field of interest who inspires you and why?
Batman, because he has all the coolest gadgets.
Describe strategies that you use to create an inclusive research environment for your students.
Our projects only succeed with teamwork. It takes three or four people to run each experiment, and each project takes months to complete. Each team is built from students with different goals, interests and skill sets. So when new students join the lab, they are added to a team and spend the first semester learning the ropes. As each student gets a feel for the lab we match his or her skillsets with the team’s goals. Sometimes outstanding students end up redirecting the lab goals to something new and unexpected, which is one of the best things about having students in the lab.
What graduate and/or undergraduate courses would you like to develop in the future?
I really like the classes I teach now, but I wish I had more time to develop my course in neuroprosthetics and brain-machine interfaces. This is a hot topic and there are many exciting career opportunities in this emerging field for a creative Biology major to get into early.
Well, the most challenging part is the torturous “research compliance” component of doing experiments with animals. Doing animal research ethically and responsibly is very important to me, and that means things don’t always go as fast as I’d like. But I know I’m very lucky to be able to do this for a living so it’s worth the extra effort.
The most rewarding part of the research comes when you’ve uncovered something completely new and unexpected. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it makes all the frustration worthwhile. The most rewarding part of the teaching is when my students achieve their personal goals, whether that means getting into the med school of their choice, publishing their first paper, finding a great job, or just satisfying that itch to do research for a little while.
I’m a very stylish dude with mega-cool style. I dress very well everywhere except at work because I try to give off that “approachable vibe”. Also I can eat, like, an entire bag of marshmallows and not get fat.
Do you have any hobbies outside of biology?
Yes. I’m a crime-fighting heavy metal rapping machine and I carve Tiki’s out of post oak trees. My other hobbies are gin and tonic and bad movies.
Photographs courtesy of Dr. Mike Smotherman and Dr. Grace Smarsh