NYU School of Medicine Neuroscientist on What Makes a Good Research Environment

Michael Halassa, M.D., Ph.D
Assistant Professor of Neurology, Psychology and Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine

How did you come to work in New York State?

I grew up in Jordan, where I completed a six-year undergraduate/M.D. program. But I was extremely interested in the research side of medicine, and there was a lack of opportunities to explore that in Jordan. So I came to the U.S. and completed my PH.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. I went on to conduct Postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while completing a residency in Psychiatry at Massachusetts General. In 2014, I came to NYU School of Medicine and established a laboratory.

What is your area of research, and what is the potential impact of the research?

My area of research involves understanding how attention is directed based on behavioral goals, and why such control is perturbed in psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia. In my lab, we are working to understand the fundamental biology of these conditions, with a focus on the function of the thalamus.

This work is incredibly important because the brain is still a mystery in ways that other organs are not. In many other areas of medicine, there are more tools available to figure out the underlying problem. I compare trying to diagnose psychiatric disorders as trying to diagnose a cough without being able to x-ray the lungs, and our current state of psychiatric care to treating all coughs with antibiotics. Understanding the biology of the brain is essential to developing sophisticated diagnostics and treatments.

What makes for a good research environment at a school?

Part of a great research environment like we have at NYU School of Medicine is being surrounded by other strong researchers with a variety of expertise, which encourages diversity of thought, and collaboration between disciplines.

Another part is having an administration that encourages a culture of curiosity, one that allows you to ask difficult questions and take risks in your research, when you might not understand what the next step is. This culture is important to facilitate innovation.

What are your thoughts on research funding?

Funding drives everything. It’s absolutely essential for laboratories to be funded and be able to hire the right people. And more funding enables researchers to take more risks, which can lead to major discoveries.