Convocation spotlight: Brandon Hauer, PhD in Neuroscience

Ramona Czakert Franson - 13 June 2022

The Neuroscience and Mental Health Institute congratulates the graduating class of 2022! Learn more about Brandon Hauer, who convocated this spring, receiving his PhD in Neuroscience.

What initially drew you to this area of study?

I’ve always been curious about memory – what a memory is, what it looks like. I did human research in psychology during my undergraduate degree (BSc Hons, 2015), and while I found it interesting, I wanted to go deeper. I wanted to study the neural circuits involved in enabling or modifying memory formation. The powerhouse supervision of Drs. Clayton Dickson and Silvia Pagliardini afforded me a unique opportunity to study in my area of interest with cutting edge neuroscientific tools and know-how. My research questions became more focused from there, and I was led to an understudied brain region (the thalamic nucleus reuniens) of which I like to think I’ve made a lasting contribution to better understanding.

What achievement are you most proud of from your time in the program?

I’m proud I made it! There are certainly times when you wonder where the light at the end of the tunnel is, especially when you’re dealing with failed experiments or mind-boggling data analysis or reviewer comments. But for all of that, there are the successes: the experiments that are just beautiful, the data visualization from your recent work that jumps off the page, the eventual paper acceptance. I’m also proud of the opportunities I had to share knowledge with people. I loved mentoring students in the lab on equipment or techniques, and similarly learning all that I could from them. In that regard, I think I’m most proud of being invited to speak at various events and lectures, and getting to share my passion and enthusiasm for everything I was working on. I’m excited about it, and I’m very thankful to have had the chance to share why I was so excited about my field of study with others.

What was the biggest challenge you faced?

I think there’s a common misconception in science that testing your hypothesis is the hardest part. In my experience, even just getting to a point where you could test your hypothesis was often the most arduous. Experiments or materials or reagents fail for seemingly no reason, there are countless variables where things can go awry, and there’s often little feedback that can help you re-focus your efforts for the next one. Ultimately, you have to accept that some days are just a wash. There might not be a lesson from failed experiments, but the whole point is to figure out a plan, change your approach, and try to make inroads where no one has before. Some guiding wisdom from my supervisor, Dr. Clayton Dickson (which I think he, in turn, received from his PhD supervisor) always helped me reframe the difficult days: “If it was easy, someone would have done it already. It wouldn’t be worth doing.”

What lessons will you take from pursuing a degree during the pandemic?

Definitely to appreciate the small, routine aspects of academic life. It was remarkable how quickly I missed Monday morning lab meetings in person, or spontaneous coffee breaks with peers, or the conversations that happen when you’re in a small experiment room with one other person for many consecutive hours. I love remote work, and I’m thankful the world has increasingly appreciated how productive people can be working from home, but there are the social supports and the shake-ups in daily routine that I appreciate now more than ever.

What comes next for you in your career?

I will always love science, but it was time for a change from the academic system. I am passionate about using my scientific training to help others – whether start-up companies, those in the wellness or biotech industries, or the general public. Empowering people with knowledge from the forefront of scientific literature is something I find highly rewarding. To that end, I am working in the biotech industry using a host of skills gained throughout my PhD (data analysis and visualization, science communication, project management, etc.). I have also recently incorporated my own company as a scientific consultant, helping biotech companies to appreciate and capitalize on the extensive scientific literature that can support them and their ideas. The more connections I can build between people and the remarkable wealth of scientific knowledge available, the happier I am.

What advice would you give to a student thinking of entering your program of study?

Do it! Chase your passion. No two students will have the same experience, and it won’t all be roses, but I will always reflect fondly on my time in the program. I would recommend sitting down and really considering what you’re passionate about, and then try to envision how you would study it. Try to picture working with a certain animal model, or doing bench work, or computer work (although you may well do a combination of those), and consider that you’ll be doing it day in and day out. Answering questions that no one else ever has is tremendously rewarding, but obviously difficult, and having a supportive supervisor(s) and labmates around you is vital. Meet your supervisor before you sign on, talk to other members of the lab, and try to get a sense of the lab culture. But beyond all of that: enjoy life. Enjoy making inroads past the boundaries of current understanding, enjoy taking your weekends and evenings for yourself when you can, and surround yourself with people and hobbies that bring you joy outside of the lab. You’re not going to finish your thesis in a week, and pushing yourself to the point of burnout certainly won’t get you there any faster. But trust me, you’ll get there – enjoy and celebrate every step along the way!

Brandon Hauer