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Alla Karpova

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I was very fortunate to grow up in the wonderful tradition of academic science in St. Petersburg, Russia, although it was not until college that I discovered biology. After high school, I had a unique opportunity to come to the United States to do my undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago. I loved math when I was a teenager and the University of Chicago’s amazing math department seemed to be ideal for me.  The University’s liberal arts program required students to take courses in a variety of disciplines, however, and, in the end, it was the way living systems are designed that I found most elegant. I chose biology and never looked back. Many things about biological systems fascinate me. I started out studying phage genetics as an undergrad, then trained in cancer biology during my PhD with Peter M. Howley at Harvard Medical School. But having wandered into a couple of neuroscience seminars during my time as a grad student I was captivated like never before.

I chose to do a postdoc in the very techy lab of Karel Svoboda, then at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where I developed molecular tools for circuit perturbation building on my experience as a molecular biologist. At the same time, I had the opportunity to learn some neuroscience and figure out which questions are important, interesting, and would also benefit from the type of tools that I and others were developing. It became clear to me that one of the questions that fits all of these criteria is how neural circuits work to control behavior. I became particularly interested in the field of neural decision-making both because of its challenge and central importance, and also because the vast majority of work that has been done on it so far came from human and primate studies, which allow for rather only limited mechanistic studies.

When I moved to Janelia, I therefore chose to develop a research program that focuses on decision-making in rodents with the aim of using molecular as well as other new technologies to study the underlying mechanisms. Our work here is dedicated to understanding the neural circuits underlying the selection of appropriate behavioral strategies in complex environments and how these mechanisms are dysfunctional in neurological disorders. These questions are currently pursued using quantitative decision-making behaviors in rats and mice; specific perturbations of neural circuits using molecular tools; and sophisticated electrophysiological and optical techniques to find neural correlates of the interesting aspects of the behavioral tasks.