Love For Liam and the true driving force in epilepsy genetics

Fundraiser. Last Friday, our epilepsy genetics team participated in the Annual Love for Liam fundraiser, which was a golf tournament at the Northhampton Country Club, in Richboro, Pennsylvania. The Love For Liam Foundation was initiated by Heather and Kyle Johnson in memory of their baby boy, Liam, who passed away from a likely genetic epileptic encephalopathy. During the fundraiser, Heather gave one of the most passionate and powerful speeches in support of epilepsy genetics that I have ever heard. I had carried around a sense of “bittersweetness” all day that I had a hard time putting into words. And after Heather’s speech, it clicked: maybe we got it all wrong, maybe we should think about the real driving force in epilepsy genetics slightly differently.

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Cosmic Spring, ATP1A3, and the dawn of the exome era

The exome decade. Last week, I accidentally looked back at our past blog posts. Exactly 10 years ago, we wrote about the discovery of ATP1A3 as the cause of Alternating Hemiplegia of Childhood (AHC). Quite a lot has happened since then in epilepsy genetics, including the discovery of at least twenty additional genes, initial clinical trials, and large-scale studies such as our Epi25 initiative. However, when seeing our 2012 blog posts, my immediate thoughts were not about achievement or progress – quite contrarily, I had the strange feeling that not much had changed in the last decade. I was reminded of a science fiction short story by Ken Liu – Cosmic Spring. Continue reading

How to get started in epilepsy genetics – The Channelopathist’s third birthday

Happy birthday. The Channelopathist turned three last week, i.e. exactly three years ago we started writing regular blog posts on epilepsy and genes, starting with a post on how SCN2A was rediscovered in neurodevelopmental disorders. Since we had many new subscribers last year, I thought that I could use this opportunity to write a brief post on how you can get started on Beyond The Ion Channel and how you can navigate our blog. Continue reading

Red Johanna Day, Ninja Turtles and my decade in epilepsy genetics

Where do you see yourself in ten years? You probably might not imagine yourself wearing Ninja Turtle pajama pants, getting up at 4:00 in the morning for a teleconference. For some reason, I kept track of my very early beginnings in epilepsy genetics when I was still a medical student. According to my calendar, today is precisely my tenth anniversary in epilepsy genetics, a day that I refer to as Red Johanna Day. Let’s revisit what happened over the last decade and what I learned from my mentors and friends in the field. And let’s find out about the Ninja Turtles. Continue reading

The surprising truth about your motivation in epilepsy genetics – 2014 update

Update. I re-read one of my older posts when I went through Dennis’ recent discussion on the lessons learned during his PhD, which also included his advice on how to keep your motivation up. Two years ago, I actually wondered where motivation for science comes from in general. Are we driven largely by egoistic motives like money or fame, or are there different factors at play? I am re-blogging one of our old posts from 2012 with minor 2014 updates. These were the answers that I came up with back then. I think they are still relevant. Continue reading

Modifier genes in Dravet Syndrome: where to look and how to find them

Converging thoughts. During late 2013, I had several unrelated discussions about the possible role of genetic modifiers of SCN1A in Dravet Syndrome. To some extent, SCN1A is a paradox. One the one hand, the connection between Dravet Syndrome and SCN1A is one of the clearest connections between gene and disease that we see in genetic epilepsies. On the other hand, we see a remarkable phenotypic heterogeneity in families, and some presumably pathogenic SCN1A variants can also be identified in unaffected control individuals. This leaves us with the question whether there are genetic modifiers in Dravet Syndrome that might help provide some insight into additional mechanisms of disease. This post is a collection of 10 individual thoughts that emerged during the discussions last year. Continue reading

2013 in review: top three lists and the gene finding of the year

Gene of the year. Let’s take a minute to look back at the very busy year of 2013. There were major advances in many areas of epilepsy genetics. First and foremost, massive (and I mean massive) progress has been made in the genetics of the epileptic encephalopathies, where de novo mutations have been identified as a major source of genetic morbidity. Secondly, the new technologies have made it possible to identify several novel genes for various epilepsy types. Out of these genes, we have again selected the most important finding in 2013. And the gene finding of the year is… Continue reading

Traveling beyond the ion channel

A how-to guide. July is going to be a slow month for the EuroEPINOMICS blog. Both Roland and I are going on vacation and we will use this time to migrate the entire blog to a more stable and supported server environment. While this always sounds like a quick thing to do, it involves much testing, experimenting and debating and that’s why the Channelopathist will be closed for the month of July. However, we wanted to use this time to provide our readers with brief instructions on how to navigate this blog and our past entries. Speaking of vacation, how far have you traveled beyond the ion channel? Continue reading

10 strategies to help you get papers out faster

The one question. Early during my doctoral thesis I was confronted with the one big question in life science. The one question that you should always ask yourself when doing research. “What is the paper going to look like?” Don’t get me wrong, there is much, much more to science than publishing, but in this post, I would like to reflect on our attitude towards publications and suggestions how we could do better. And this also includes myself. Continue reading

The surprising truth of your motivation for epilepsy genetics

Why are we doing what we are doing? Academic research appears to be a rat race of high-strung egomaniacs fighting for grant money, impact factors and ultimately their scientific legacy. In this constant struggle you either make it or you don’t, you publish or perish, depending on how good you can elbow your way through. And finally, make no mistake, it’s all about the money. Unfortunately, many young researchers are given this dire, coldhearted perspective by senior scientists and supervisors. Your PhD either results in a Nature or Science paper or you’re gone. Family? Not my problem. Holidays? Why are you even asking. This blog post is about the hidden secrets of human motivation, trying to point out some basic fallacies in these arguments. My brief answer to this is: “This is so 1995…”

Party like it’s 1995. Just imagine we are back in 1995 and we were asked the following question. “I would like you to tell me our opinion about the possible success of two different online encyclopedias. Type A is financed by the world’s largest software company, which has dedicated a generous budget to this project that pays both a highly qualified staff of writers and an experienced management team. Type B is a voluntary encyclopedia with no budget, established through people dedicating their spare time. In 15 years from now, which online encyclopedia will still exist?” In 1995, there was probably not a single person who would have put his or her money on Encyclopedia B based on this description. However, Encyclopedia B has evolved into one of the world’s largest online knowledge repositories, while Encyclopedia A closed its doors for good in 2009.

Wikipedia vs. Encarta. If I tell you that Encyclopedia B is Wikipedia and Encyclopedia A is Microsoft’s Encarta, this story makes sense to you. Daniel Pink provides this example in his book “Drive”, which tries to explain the secrets of human motivation. In brief, in contrast to the prevalent belief that strong incentives such as money or titles are the main drivers of human motivation, this “carrot and stick” method only gets you so far and will produce people being productive for the reward, and not for the issue itself. Pink identifies three elements that are the main drivers of motivation, namely Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. In brief, Wikipedia became what is today by enabling people to work autonomously, to engage their expertise and to feel a sense of purpose through a shared experience and feedback, something that millions of dollars by Microsoft could not buy.

Motivational theory. Pink’s arguments are nothing new. They are based on scientific investigations by Deci and Ryan in the 1970s, who conducted sophisticated psychological experiments to analyse human motivation and who identified these three elements as part of their self-determination theory of motivation.

Application to research. Uri Alon from the Weizman Institute has re-interpreted these results for the field of science in a freely available comment in Molecular Cell, identifying Competence, Autonomy and Social connectedness as the three elements that apply to science. Competence basically relates to working in an environment that is neither too boring nor too challenging. In research, we are mainly faced with leaving people with a task that is too challenging for their current knowledge level. For example, suggesting that a Young Researcher design a sophisticated genome-wide association study on pediatric pharmacology without any prior knowledge of biostatistics is too challenging, eventually decreasing motivation. Altering the project to a candidate gene screening will eventually  increase the researcher’s motivation, despite the possible lack of scientific ingenuity. However, in the end, the second option will be more productive for the team as the young investigator is capable of working at her or his level of competence. Autonomy refers to a related issue. You can only be motivated in science when you perceive a sense of independence and an intermediate level of structure. Not too structured and not too independent. The third strand of motivation in science is Social Connectedness. It’s the proverbial water cooler discussion, the environment that gives you a sense of belonging, the interesting paper that was pointed out by that guy next in the lab next door, the senior postdoc who has nothing to do with your project, but  who is happy to have a look at why your PCR isn’t working. Networks have been the main driver of scientific innovations over the past centuries, which is “Where good ideas come from”, as authors Steven Johnson puts it. Naturally, the science network arising from research consortia such as EPICURE or EuroEPINOMICS is much more than just a collection of scientists. These networks are organic entities and the ideal breeding ground for scientific innovation in the field.

The hidden secrets of motivation. How motivation works in science and how to choose projects that are ideally suited for you in epilepsy genetics.

When scientific projects are really well suited for you. Uri Alon goes on to re-interpret these three elements in the context of scientific projects, suggesting a so-called TOP model (Figure). Projects are particularly well suited for you if they manage to completely engage you, drawing on your talents, your passions and your goals. Epilepsy genetics of the future will be multifaceted with many different niches and subfields that might allow a broad range of scientists with different backgrounds and motivations to contribute. Touching upon diverse fields such as genetics, neuroscience, social sciences, public health, etc., researchers with “cross-over skill sets” will be crucial. The age of the lonely genius researcher hiding out in his secret lab to eventually emerge with a Nobel-prize winning flash of inspiration is over, if it has ever existed. The science of the future will be network science and “chance favors the connected mind”.