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Beyond the bench: A conversation with Tony Zador


Anthony Zador

Professor, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

When Tony Zador is thinking about the brain, he’s often exercising his body. A professor of neurosciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Zador has run five miles a day, seven days a week since he was 18. “That’s when the ideas sort of click into place,” he says.

His bagel-fueled afternoon jaunts have continued unabated during the coronavirus pandemic, helping to drive forward his research on how the brain’s disparate parts give rise to the complexity of human behavior and experience. Zador’s lab created a brain-mapping technique known as BARseq — an update to the earlier MAPseq — that can trace connections and gene expression in individual neurons. The tool may help researchers understand how brains are connected differently in autistic people.

Spectrum spoke to Zador about the enigma of the human brain, the ‘aha’ moments of running and why a ski resort is a good place for a scientific conference.

Spectrum: What question drives your research?

Tony Zador: Ultimately, it’s: How do you go from three pounds of brain to thought? We know an awful lot about the parts that make up brains — the neurons, the synapses, the molecules — and in spite of all that, we don’t know how to put the pieces together to form a simple, coherent model of how that gives rise to thought and emotions and actions and memories. It’s really frustrating, because it’s like you’ve got a bunch of Tinkertoys and you know that you have all the right pieces, and you don’t know how to put them together quite right.

There’s a great cartoon of a bunch of Scrabble tiles, and the caption is something like, “I just bought a book from Ikea.” That’s kind of how I feel. We understand so much about the pieces, and yet we don’t know how to put them together in quite the right way.

S: Is there a person you’d like to work with whom you haven’t worked with yet?

TZ: I’m really lucky that I have super smart people in my lab, but I also collaborate all the time with all sorts of people who later become friends or who were already friends. Just now I’m really excited because I’m just starting a grant with Ed Boyden. We’ve been friends for years and talking about doing something together, and so now it looks like we can maybe do something that brings our technologies together and will allow us to do things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

S: What does your daily routine look like?

TZ: My days aren’t that different now during COVID-19, except that the meetings, instead of being face to face in my office, are over Zoom. I have kids, so my daily routine used to start with being woken up earlier than I would like, to get my kids off to school, but now I get to sleep in a bit more. Usually I try to put off my meetings so I don’t have them first thing, and I answer emails or maybe even think a little, but that’s rare. Mostly I don’t have time for that.

I occasionally have some time to work on reviewing papers, writing papers, writing grants, all those things. I don’t have great study habits, so I’m not very efficient, and an awful lot of my time when I’m supposed to be doing something in particular is spent procrastinating and not doing it. Sometimes I go down scientific rabbit holes, and in some sense that’s inefficient but probably good in the long run, because those are when I get excited about new ideas.

I run pretty much every day. I use that time to relax but also often to think through scientific things. Especially if I’m doing something math-related, which is a lot of what I do, that’s when those ideas sort of click into place. If I’m stuck on something I go for a run, and when I get back I at least have an idea of what I should do next.

Anthony Zador stretching on a rock near his home.

S: When and where are you most productive?

TZ: It depends. There are different stages of any project. For me, the creative time is at night — I’m a night owl. I get so little sleep because I wait until everyone is asleep, including the kids, and then I work until 2 or 3 a.m. That’s when I get most excited about tracking down ideas. That’s not necessarily when I’m most productive in terms of writing sentences for a paper or something. That is more like a couple of hours after I’ve woken up. But that assumes that I’m productive, which I’m really not these days.

Different people have different styles. I’ve basically come to realize the trick is to embrace what you might think are your weaknesses as your strengths and find collaborators who complement your weaknesses. My strength is that I get excited early on in a project when the project is just being conceived. I love the excitement of doing something new. Once I come remotely close to mastering anything, I kind of start losing interest in it.

S: Do you have a favorite conference?

TZ: I’ve actually started a bunch of conferences, so they’re among my favorites. When I was a postdoctoral researcher I started a conference called NIC, which was Neural Information and Coding. It was a small, invitation-only conference that was always at a ski resort. We would have meetings in the morning, then ski throughout the day, and then meet again in the evening. That eventually grew into a much larger conference called Cosyne — Computational and Systems Neuroscience — which has ballooned up to almost 1,000 people.

The most fun meetings are the smallest meetings. It’s exactly the meeting I wish had been around when I was a graduate student or a postdoc.

I just started a new meeting for neuroscience and artificial intelligence, NAISys. It was going to be held at the end of March, and it was postponed until mid-November. It will bring together people interested in what real brains can tell us about how to build better artificial neural networks.

S: What are you reading right now?

TZ: You mean other than countless papers on immunology because of COVID? I’m reading several books. One is called “Other Minds,” by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It’s all about how smart octopuses are, and how they’re like this weird alien intelligence. Even though I’m a neuroscientist, I knew almost nothing about octopuses. They’re really smart, and the way their nervous system is organized is really different. Related to that, I just finished a book called, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” by Frans de Waal. It’s just spectacular.

I was an M.D.-Ph.D., and even though I didn’t go on to do a residency, the book all medical students had to read was a novel by a guy named Samuel Shem called “The House of God.” It captured deep truths about what it’s like to be a medical intern. It’s basically a somewhat fictionalized year in the life of a medical intern at MGH, which stood for Man’s Greatest Hospital. Fairly recently, he came out with a sequel called “Man’s Fourth Best Hospital,” and I just started reading that, so I’m excited.

S: What do you eat or drink while you’re working?

TZ: I drink endless cups of coffee, and because I can’t run on a full stomach, and it takes a very long time after eating for me to not have a full stomach, I basically eat bagels until I go for a run. So the answer is coffee and bagels.

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This Notice of Privacy Practices describes how we may use and disclose your protected health information to carry out treatment, payment or health care operations and for other purposes that are permitted or required by law. It also describes your rights to access and control your protected health information. Protected health information is information about you, including demographic information, that may identify you and that relates to your past, present or future physical or mental health or condition and related health care services.


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Your protected health information may be used and disclosed by our office staff others outside of our office who are involved in your care and treatment for the purpose of providing health care services to you.
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(vi) Legal Proceedings: We may disclose protected health information in the course of any judicial or administrative proceeding, in response to an order of a court or administrative tribunal (to the extent such disclosure is expressly authorized), or in certain conditions in response to a subpoena, discovery request or other lawful process.

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(viii) Research: We may disclose your protected health information to researchers when their research has been approved by an institutional review board that has reviewed the research proposal and established protocols to ensure the privacy of your protected health information.

(ix) Criminal Activity: Consistent with applicable federal and state laws, we may disclose your protected health information, if we believe that the use or disclosure is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public. We may also disclose protected health information if it is necessary for law enforcement authorities to identify or apprehend an individual.

(x) Military Activity and National Security: When the appropriate conditions apply, we may use or disclose protected health information of individuals who are Armed Forces personnel (1) for activities deemed necessary by appropriate military command authorities; (2) for the purpose of a determination by the Department of Veterans Affairs of your eligibility for benefits, or (3) to foreign military authority if you are a member of that foreign military services. We may also disclose your protected health information to authorized federal officials for conducting national security and intelligence activities, including for the provision of protective services to the President or others legally authorized.

(xi) Workers' Compensation: We may disclose your protected health information as authorized to comply with workers' compensation laws and other similar legally established programs.
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We may use and disclose your protected health information in the following instances. You have the opportunity to agree or object to the use or disclosure of all or part of your protected health information. If you are not present or able to agree or object to the use or disclosure of the protected health information, then we may, using professional judgment, determine whether the disclosure is in your best interest.

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Unless you object, we may disclose to a member of your family, a relative, a close friend or any other person you identify, your protected health information that directly relates to that person's involvement in your health care. If you are unable to agree or object to such a disclosure, we may disclose such information as necessary if we determine that it is in your best interest based on our professional judgment. We may use or disclose protected health information to notify or assist in notifying a family member, personal representative or any other person that is responsible for your care of your location, general condition or death. Finally, we may use or disclose your protected health information to an authorized public or private entity to assist in disaster relief efforts and to coordinate uses and disclosures to family or other individuals involved in your health care.
6. Uses and Disclosures of Protected Health Information Based upon Your Written Authorization Other uses and disclosures of your protected health information will be made only with your written authorization, unless otherwise permitted or required by law as described below. You may revoke this authorization in writing at any time. If you revoke your authorization, we will no longer use or disclose your protected health information for the reasons covered by your written authorization. Please understand that we are unable to take back any disclosures already made with your authorization.
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This means you may inspect and obtain a copy of protected health information about you for so long as we maintain the protected health information. You may obtain your medical record that contains medical and billing records and any other records that we use for making decisions about you. As permitted by federal or state law, we may charge you a reasonable copy fee for a copy of your records.
2. You have the right to request a restriction of your protected health information
This means you may ask us not to use or disclose any part of your protected health information for the purposes of treatment, payment or health care operations. You may also request that any part of your protected health information not be disclosed to family members or friends who may be involved in your care or for notification purposes as described in this Notice of Privacy Practices. Your request must state the specific restriction requested and to whom you want the restriction to apply.

We are not required to agree to a restriction that you may request. If we agree to the requested restriction, we may not use or disclose your protected health information in violation of that restriction unless it is needed to provide emergency treatment. With this in mind, please discuss any restriction you wish to request with your health provider.

You may request a restriction by making your request in writing to our Privacy Officer. In your request, you must tell us (1) what information you want to limit; (2) whether you want to limit our use, disclosure, or both; and (3) to whom you want the limits to apply, for example, disclosures to your spouse.
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We will accommodate reasonable requests. We may also condition this accommodation by asking you for information as to how payment will be handled or specification of an alternative address or other method of contact. We will not request an explanation from you as to the basis for the request. Please make this request in writing to our Privacy Officer.
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This means you may request an amendment of protected health information about you in a designated record set for so long as we maintain this information. In certain cases, we may deny your request for an amendment. If we deny your request for amendment, you have the right to file a statement of disagreement with us and we may prepare a rebuttal to your statement and will provide you with a copy of any such rebuttal. Please contact our Privacy Officer if you have questions about amending your medical record.
5. You have the right to receive an accounting of certain disclosures we have made, if any, of your protected health information This right applies to disclosures for purposes other than treatment, payment or health care operations as described in this Notice of Privacy Practices. It excludes disclosures we may have made to you if you authorized us to make the disclosure, to family members or friends involved in your care, or for notification purposes, for national security or intelligence, to law enforcement (as provided in the privacy rule) or correctional facilities, as part of a limited data set disclosure. The right to receive this information is subject to certain exceptions, restrictions and limitations.
6. You have the right to obtain a paper copy of this notice from us
upon request, even if you have agreed to accept this notice electronically.
You may complain to us or to the Secretary of Health and Human Services if you believe your privacy rights have been violated by us. You may file a complaint with us by notifying our Privacy Officer of your complaint. We will not retaliate against you for filing a complaint

You may contact our Privacy Officer at (704) 824-7800 for further information about the complaint process.

This notice was published and becomes effective on August l, 2011.