Africa and Portugal
I was born in Portugal in 1961, but I joined my family in Luanda, Angola, when I was 3 years-old. Although I left Africa when I was only 12, and war has kept me away ever since, I still remember vividly the people, the wilderness, the music, the art, the food... Within months of my return to Portugal in the summer of 1973, the country went through its most important change in recent history; The Carnation Revolution of 1974. Without violence, Portuguese society went from the repression of fascism to the freedom of democracy. I was lucky to live through those heady times, full of promise and excitement, when many of us believed that we could change the world. In some respects, we actually did; Portugal today is a democratic, open society with a vibrant culture, a startling contrast to the previous 50 dark years of fascism.
The revolution had an exciting rejuvenating impact on Portuguese society, but it left most of the Country's institutions in chaos, including its Universities. So, I managed to convince my reluctant parents to let me study abroad. I ended up where much of my family, including my great grand-parents had lived: the United States of America. Rutgers University was an incredible place, and I spent four wonderful years figuring out what I would do for the rest of my life. I had the good fortune of working with William Sofer, a talented, patient and generous fly geneticist that taught me that to be a scientist is to serve Science (and not the other way around...), and that a career in Science is first and foremost a love affair. Besides science, philosophy was my other love, so much so that I even considered graduate studies in epistemology.
At the University of Utah, I worked with one of the most talented scientists I have ever met. Ray White was the kind of advisor that always made me feel smarter and more creative than I actually was. He gave me the luxury of independence and taught me the joy of discovering, the great fun of lab work! Human Genetics was in its infancy, and Ray one of its pioneers. Therefore, I was privileged to witness the early development of this incredible field. My graduate work showed that epigenetic patterns of DNA methylation can be polymorphic and that they are inherited in a Mendelian fashion. It was fun to develop this quirky project, and I remember fondly the many energizing discussions I had with Ray and other members of the lab. During my graduate studies I became intrigued by the inner processes of science, and I organized yearly graduate symposia where leading luminaries shared their insights on this subject. Although Science plays a central role in modern culture, economics and history, there have been very few efforts to systematically study the inner workings of science. It was in Utah that I met Tawnie, my wife of 26 years, and where my daughter Elenna was born in November of 1985! Needless to say, the majestic mountains and the kind and warm people of that great state remain close to my heart... It was also in Utah that I realized that I could combine my two passions and spend the rest of my life studying the biological basis of epistemology (how we know what we know).
While finishing my graduate studies, I became obsessed with the idea of studying memory with the exciting new gene targeting technology that I learned about in a lab rotation with Mario Capecchi. Molecular genetics had a seminal role in Immunology, Cancer and Development, and I was convinced that it (with gene targeting in mice) would also transform Neuroscience. While at a meeting in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, I heard from Peter Mombaerts, then a graduate student in the Tonegawa Lab, that Susumu Tonegawa was interested in Neuroscience (he had taken a CSHL Neuroscience course), and that his lab was trying to set up gene targeting to study the immunology receptors they had cloned. So, I had the temerity of writing to him and proposing to target genes expressed postnatally in the cerebellum and study cerebellar memory in his Immunology laboratory! Amazingly, Susumu took me seriously and invited me to pursue this crazy project in his lab! The immunology work for which Susumu was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1987, a year before I joined the laboratory, is one of the most elegant and profound discoveries of our time, and that sense of extraordinary possibility and achievement was palpable and more real in that laboratory than anywhere else I have ever been. Only a few months after joining Susumu, I had the good fortune of attending a Society for Neuroscience symposium (Toronto 1988), organized by John Lisman, on mechanisms of hippocampal plasticity. The interesting properties of calmodulin kinase II, that John championed in his prescient models, persuaded me to refocus my project on hippocampal memory. I will never, ever forget that wonderfully cold and crisp November week I spent in Toronto! The next three years in the Tonegawa laboratory changed my life since I developed and fine tuned an approach that we continue to use to this day (Molecular and Cellular Cognition). Susumu taught me that a child's sense of wonder infuses science with the simplicity, humility and honesty that guide true innovation. I will forever be grateful for his generosity, without which my career would have remained in the shadows of his accomplishments. It was also in Boston that my son Alexander was born in August of 1990.
From MIT, I went to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where I set up my own laboratory in the summer of 1992. The success of our efforts are in great part due to the support I got from Bruce Stillman and Jim Watson. They gave legitimacy to my dreams and their unwavering support helped our laboratory weather the skepticism and hostility against the field that we were pioneering (Molecular and Cellular Cognition). Twenty years later Molecular and Cellular Cognition includes more than 200 laboratories in America, Europe and Asia, and a Society that I helped fund with more than 4000 members and chapters in the US, Europe and Asia. I owe much to the young and talented people that joined my laboratory and developed the ideas and carried out the experiments that helped to shape this young field. Their success is my greatest reward, and their energy, commitment and tenacity are a constant source of inspiration!
In the Spring of 1998, I moved my laboratory to UCLA where we initiated a new phase of our work: Our molecular and cellular beginnings in memory acquisition led us to the biology of memory allocation; Our passion for understanding the biological basis of how simple organisms solve problems brought us to biological studies of extraordinary cognition; From studying mouse models of cognitive disorders, we became involved with human studies that are starting to unravel the molecular basis of cognitive function. My obsession with the inner workings of science led to efforts to develop strategies to derive causal maps of previous findings that we have used for experiment planning. At UCLA I see the tremendous power of collegiality and collaborative research at its best. UCLA is the foremost example of what academic science can be, and what a community of interactive, collaborative but also deeply individual and independent minds can create and achieve together. I am truly proud to be part of this community!
I spent a major part of 2006 in the National Institute of Mental Health Intramural Research Program (NIMH-IRP) as scientific director before returning to UCLA in the Spring of 2007. The NIMH-IRP is an incredible place with incomparable resources and with a number of talented and imaginative scientists that I got to know as colleagues and friends. I include here a PDF of my first speech as NIMH-IRP director, where I introduced a number of policies, some of which have since been implemented. It is gratifying to know that my brief time as director of this Institution helped its efforts to re-invent itself. I will be forever grateful to the many people at NIMH that helped me through that exciting and eventful year, a year that became a turning point in my life. How wonderful it is to be a scientist again!
Back in LA!
After a short stint as director of the National Institute of Mental Health Intramural Research Program, I returned to UCLA, where I became the first director of the Integrative Center for Learning and Memory, an organization with 45 faculty studying molecular, cellular, systems, behavioral and cognitive mechanisms of memory. It is a highly collaborative community of wonderful and generous scientists, and I cannot imagine a better place to work! In the last few years, our laboratory is transitioning from a focus on studies of how the brain processes and stores single memories to the mechanisms that integrate and link memories across time. Additionally, we have also leveraged studies of plasticity, especially those pertaining to mechanisms underlying enhancements in cognitive function, to develop strategies to accelerate recovery after brain injury. Our efforts to develop strategies to deal with the overwhelming complexity of modern biology have led to a web application (researchmaps.org) that facilitates the process of keeping track and effectively using the ever increasing amounts of information related to our work. The app is fun and useful! Try it!
Alcino J Silva
- 2017 NPR interview about memory linking
- My personal account of our lab's discovery of memory allocation and memory linking in Scientific American (2017)
For a 2015 conversation with the Ideas RoadShow click here
For a 2015 interview with Current Biology click here
Alcino's new book:
For Alcino's latest photos and mp3 just click on the thumbnails below: