Brain Power

February 5, 2016
Kasey Cheydleur
Lab with electronic equipment on metal racks
Alex Riordan ’15 with the two-photon microscope he uses in his research to image brain activity at single-neuron resolution. Photo credit: Sergio M. Martinez

When Alexander Riordan ’15 arrived in Oberlin, he thought he was going to be a singer. However, he soon realized he would rather pursue his passions in math, computer science, and biology. For three years Riordan worked in Professor of Neuroscience Jan Thornton’s lab designing experiments, learning technical skills, and receiving life advice.

Today, Riordan is putting what he learned in Thornton’s lab and his math major to use while pursuing a PhD in neuroscience at Princeton University. He spends his days building mathematical and computational models of brain circuits, working to link cognition with its underlying biology. Riordan also conducts experiments to understand exactly which brain circuits cause certain behaviors. For example, in a recent experiment Riordan used light to control the behavior of a genetically modified fly. By shining an LED on the fly’s brain, his team could make the fly perform a mating song.

Riordan says he enjoys the collaborative aspects of his research. “Science is both an individual and team sport,” he says. “I’m lucky in that I get to work with highly motivated, curious young scientists as well as established leaders in the field. Because the brain is so complex, it’s going to take all of our individual creativity and coordinated teamwork to figure things out. It’s fun and exciting to work alongside such great individuals to shape what the future of neuroscience will be.”

Riordan says in the future he would like to be a professor at a research institution and run his own lab. He wants his research to help elucidate the brain mechanics underlying memory and recognition. By shedding light on these mysterious processes, he hopes to impact people's well-being and further our understanding of learning, aging, and developmental disorders.

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