Growing up in Japan, Chie Satou didn’t immediately fall in love with science at school, but she did love animals – both her family’s pets and the animals in the fields near her home. Satou soon graduated to bigger animals and bigger fields: as an undergraduate student, she spent a summer in Africa doing conservation field work, counting animals in the wild. Satou loved being in the field and enjoyed the work, but she yearned to know more about animal behavior beyond just watching them. That desire – to understand what animals are thinking and how their brains enable behavior – led Satou to study neuroscience and her current research combining behavioral and brain science.
HHMI Janelia: To start, tell us about the research your lab will be doing.
Chie Satou: An interesting approach to understanding how brains generate behavior is first asking why animals behave in a certain way and then modeling the behavioral strategies they have evolved. We can then look for neural circuits that produce these strategies. There is a long history of observing naturalistic animal behavior, which we can now quantify at high resolution using automated movement tracking. In my lab, we will be exploring the naturalistic behavioral repertoire of a novel animal model, the Danionella fish, to study brain-wide circuits underlying complex behaviors. I’m curious how far we can challenge individual fish, but Danionella live in groups, so ultimately, I’m interested in quantifying group behaviors as well.
HHMI Janelia: Why is it important to model animal behavior?
Chie Satou: Interpreting neural activity in the brain remains an enormous challenge. Neurons located close to organs – monitoring sensory input or controlling muscles, for example – often exhibit activity patterns closely related to those organs. But neural circuits that rely on such activity patterns to coordinate complex behaviors, such as hunting prey or shoaling, perform computations that have been difficult to pin down. By quantifying and modeling behavior, we can make predictions about the kind of computational logic we should look for in the brain.
HHMI Janelia: How are you studying this?
Chie Satou: I’m working with Danionella fish to tackle these questions. Danionella are very small, even as adults, so it is possible to record neural activity from the entire developed brain. This enables us to very precisely localize all the neural circuits involved in complex behaviors that adult fish perform. The challenges are to explore what specific behaviors adult Danionella engage in and whether we can model and predict how they behave, so that we can leverage this remarkable, whole-brain access. We can then compare the neural circuits of different species of Danionella that solve similar challenges but live in distinct ecological niches and likely utilize different behavioral strategies.
HHMI Janelia: What motivates you to do this work?
Chie Satou: I like challenges. Some people like having more of a routine. I understand that. It’s peaceful – the routine gives you peace. But I like that problems in science can be very challenging, and I don’t mind breaking my routine to solve them. I think it is a huge joy to discover something new. When we see unexpected results, I get very excited and start looking for possible explanations. That is my peaceful moment, and I’m never bored doing science.
HHMI Janelia: Why did you come to Janelia?
Chie Satou: Janelia has a great reputation for developing molecular tools to study the brain, which is work that is very important to me. I also find Janelia’s unique structure interesting, where there are small labs and people are encouraged to try risky ideas. This is made possible by the incredible technical support. So I’m excited to be part of this creative environment.
I think that a lot of effort has been made to make Janelia a comfortable place to work, such as carefully chosen art, architecture, and décor. This helps motivate me for my work. I also feel effort has been made to make Janelia diverse and inclusive, which I think fosters great science as well as respect for all members of our community. Although I have only been here a short time, I have really enjoyed taking coffee at the Manor house or a Pimm’s at Bob’s pub, and the atmosphere has been fantastic. I’m looking forward to taking part in lots of collaborations and discussions with everyone at Janelia.
HHMI Janelia: What do you like to do outside the lab?
Chie Satou: I grew up with animals and I love animals. I brought my Bernese Mountain Dog from Switzerland to Virginia, so I’m really looking forward to exploring nature together in the US, especially in Virginia. I’ve heard that Virginia is gorgeous. I have just been here for a few months and so far, we have only visited Selden Island, but it was already very nice, and my dog really enjoyed running and swimming there.
I also like to go scuba diving. I haven’t had a chance to scuba dive for a while, as I did not live by the coast. But from Washington, there are many flights to wonderful scuba diving destinations such as the Caribbean islands, so I am really looking forward to visiting. Hopefully I can also learn something about the natural behavior of fish during diving.
HHMI Janelia: Are there any scientists, living or dead, that you would love to just sit down and talk with?
Chie Satou: There are two people that come to mind: one is Nikolaas Tinbergen and the other is my elementary school principal. Nikolaas Tinbergen is one of the pioneers of modern ethology. When I was an undergraduate student, I read his books and got inspired by them. Now that we are combining ethology with neuroscience, it would be interesting to discuss with him what he thinks about modern neuroscience.
When I was in elementary school, the school principal gave a speech every Monday morning. Along with teaching, he was also a marine biologist, and he was the first scientist I ever met. Normally in school speeches we are taught generic life lessons, but instead he gave a speech about his research, like his field work in the Great Barrier Reef on how coral reefs maintain marine ecosystems. He would also keep coral reef specimens in a “treasure” drawer so we could see a glimpse of the wonderful marine ecosystems that he worked on. Although growing up, I did not think I would want to be a scientist, I think he greatly influenced me to choose this career. It would be interesting to talk science with him now, and also to thank him and let him know that I really enjoyed his talks and that he influenced me a lot. I aspire to have a similar influence on younger generations.