Sunil Gandhi Designs Leading-Edge Neuroscience Laboratory Course

By: Michael Gomez

If you close your eyes, and recall the last time you embarked on something new; a project, a dream, a sport, an activity, a new home, a new gadget -- you will activate your limbic system, filling your brain with feelings of novelty and innovation. You might smile effortlessly, and taste the excitement of possibility. This is what happened to me when I spoke with Dr. Gandhi about his newest passion project and how it changed his goals and aspirations as a scientist and as an educator. 

We arrived at his office at the same time in the morning. He began describing his work with youthful excitement, while still unpacking his bag. At the forefront of his mind was the new laboratory course he was teaching and in front of him, the camera he was using to document his journey. The cutting-edge content of the new laboratory course combined with the novel teaching philosophy generated the giddiness, which was rapidly becoming infectious. “You see this?” Dr. Gandhi asked, showing me a photo of a mouse brain floating in a clear liquid. “This is a mouse brain.” He advanced to the next photo “You see this?” he asked again, anticipating the puzzled look on my face. The test tube now appeared to be empty. “This is a transparent mouse brain,” he said. I smiled quizzically, feeling like a spectator in a magic show. Dr. Gandhi went on to describe the novel cutting-edge technique known as brain clearing.  The method, a highly advanced variant of the technology first pioneered by Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth in 2013, makes brain tissue transparent using hydrogels that maintain tissue structure. Combined with antibody or gene-based labeling, it enables highly detailed pictures of the protein and nucleic acid structure of organs, especially the brain. Dr. Gandhi’s lab has developed some of the most innovative techniques to clear the brain and produce very high-resolution images of its structure using Light Sheet Microscopy. 

Building on his lab’s science and methods, and largely driven by his MD/PhD student Ricardo Azevedo, Dr. Gandhi designed a first-of-its-kind, interactive laboratory course that immerses students into the excitement of today’s most cutting edge neuroscience. 

With mentorship from graduate students, the undergraduates learn brain clearing, programming, imaging, data analysis and, most importantly, how to work together to collect real experimental data. They learn both conceptual and practical skills, and, unlike other lab courses, generate legitimate data that can be used to write grants and papers. 

“The mentors play an essential role in this class,” he told me. “With their participation, learning is faster and much more efficient.” Mentored active learning is a win-win. Both mentors and mentees learn and edify each other. Both engage in deeper critical thinking as a result of the process. The mentors learn by teaching and gain valuable experience that is rarely found in other courses. The mentees are open to ideas and are willing to accept help - an experience that can leave a lasting impact that eventually turns the mentee into a mentor. Both duties are challenging, though at times uncertain, but the outcomes are among the most rewarding of human experiences. 

Combining advanced neuroscience techniques with interactive mentorship has the potential to have significant positive and lasting impact on the way we train future leaders in neuroscience. This is exactly what Dr. Gandhi is envisioning. He raved about the success of his undergraduate students and the leaps that have taken to overcome the steep learning curves, as well as the thrill among the graduate mentors who are eager to mold these young minds. 

I could practically smell the excitement and enthusiasm in the air during the class. “Their faces!” he said. “They are so eager to learn and they’re enjoying it. I am too!” 

His focus during the class is on teaching students critical thinking, guiding them through current research, and ensuring that they have a strong conceptual foundation in the basic sciences. He also creates the necessary conditions that enable students to conduct innovative experimentation. 

Unsurprisingly, shortly after setting off this “undergraduate nursery”, he noticed how quickly the students adapted and learned to use the high-level techniques they were being taught. He successfully challenged them and they rose to the occasion, suggesting a new model for undergraduate teaching is indeed possible. “Our brains are wired for this type of challenging but exciting learning experience,” he said.

The success of the students in this course has exceeded all expectations. Data obtained from their work has been used for two grant submissions to the National Institutes of Health. “We want to change the teaching lab culture to plug into what we know already works. That is the scientific way.”

How has this experience changed him as a scientist and as an educator? It’s “as if someone has hijacked my mind,” he laughed. It has transformed the way he thinks about education and blurred the lines between research and teaching. He is now preparing a grant proposal to support the expansion of this new course. I asked him for examples of lessons he learned about teaching in this new structure. 

“I think what we need more is innovation and entrepreneurship,” he explained. Teaching these principles is quite rare in biological sciences, but is far more prevalent in engineering. Why is this important? An entrepreneurial mindset equips students with a success skill set that is necessary to thrive in today’s job market. Entrepreneurs and innovators think differently and embrace their differences. They do not fear change. Instead, they seek it. They have limitless energy and a strong desire to create and to improve on the status quo.

Can these skills be taught? “Absolutely!” says Dr. Gandhi. Renowned psychologist Robert Sternberg writes that if we were to teach creativity to students, we must first teach them to decide for creativity. There is no better way to teach students to make this decision than by exposing them to the possibilities and excitement of today’s modern neuroscience. 

Armed with killer methods and a fiery passion for teaching students to be tomorrow’s innovators, Dr. Gandhi is shaking up the pedagogical model. The results so far have been nothing short of extraordinary!


Dr. Gandhi is Associate Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at UC Irvine and Associate Director of the UCI Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. Click here to learn more about Dr. Gandhi's research.

Professor David Reinkensmeyer to present keynote lecture at 2019 Irvine Brain Bee

We are thrilled to announce that Professor David Reinkensmeyer will present the Keynote Lecture at the Irvine Brain Bee on February 16, 2019. Dr. Reinkensmeyer is a Faculty Fellow of the UC Irvine CNLM and a Professor in both the Departments of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering as well as the Department of Biomedical Engineering.

Dr. Reinkensmeyer received his B.S. degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his masters and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. He has been a professor at UC Irvine since 1998.

As director of the Biorobotics Laboratory, Dr. Reinkensmeyer aims to develop technologies that, through repetitive training and exercise, enhance human movement, motor learning and rehabilitation, allowing individuals with disabilities to move again.

All registered Brain Bee participants and their parents will be invited to attend the Keynote Lecture. To learn more about the 2019 Irvine Brain Bee and to register, click here.

Photo credit: UCI School of Engineering

Why Our Brains Love Story


We all love to sit down with a good book or a movie and feel transported to an alternate reality. What makes a story so captivating? How does the brain construct a narrative and why does it seek logic and structure in any story? Can neuroscience offer insights into the art of storytelling? 

Acting instructor David Ihrig and neuroscientist Michael Yassa believe storytelling comes naturally to humans and our brains are wired for it. With funding from UCI Illuminations, the Chancellor’s Arts and Culture Initiative, as well as support from the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, they designed a two-part interactive series to take a deep dive into the brain basis for storytelling. 

Part I of this series took place at the Herklotz Conference Facility on November 13, 2018. The concept for this session titled “Scientific Story Shaping” was to create a story with help from the audience and deconstruct its components in terms of neuroscientific principles. This crowd-sourced story outline will serve as the starting point for Part II, The Performance, a minimalist production based on the art and (neuro)science of storytelling. 

In addition to Yassa and Ihrig, two more panelists took the stage and worked with the audience to shape the story elements. The first panelist was Adam Leipzig, CEO of Entertainment Media Partners and a former Disney Executive. He supervised such films as Dead Poets Society (1989), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), and The Way Back (2010). While president of National Geographic Films, he acquired the international rights to March of the Penguins and created the US version. He is a faculty member at UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, and Senior Creative Advisor for CreativeFuture. 

Leipzig kicked off the panel discussion by describing the process by which the story was created for A Plastic Ocean (2016). It began with a loud thud - boxes of uncut tapes landing in a production warehouse containing thousands of hours of footage. But there was no story. The challenge was to take this raw material and craft from it characters, narrative, and a compelling storyline. Of course, the film went on to win awards at film festivals all around the world and was an eye-opening experience for its viewers. 

The second panelist was Lisa Cron, story consultant, author, speaker, and instructor at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She has written two books that utilize brain science in story creation; Wired for Story & Story Genius. Lisa has worked in publishing at W.W. Norton, as a producer on shows for Showtime and CourtTV, and as a story consultant for Warner Brothers.

Cron walked the audience through the tenets of storytelling and why our brains are wired for story. In her words, “A story is about how what happens affects someone who is in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal and how that person changes internally as a result.” Emphasizing complex characters with a history and back story was a recurring theme throughout the evening.

“My story is one about survival,” said Yassa. The brain is wired to encode memories in terms of narrative as it is the basis for building causal chains. “If A happens, then B happens, then C happens, and I can remember that narrative, my brain can predict the future. After all, that is exactly what memory is good for. It cares very little about our past. It only cares about making future decisions that benefit our survival.” Putting storytelling in the context of the brain’s survival instinct clicked with Cron who writes about the same themes in her books.

Ihrig was last to take the podium. The last time he successfully bridged neuroscience and the arts was during his innovative interdisciplinary course, the “Science of Acting”. The highly acclaimed course was by all measures a successful experiment that will likely transform how acting is taught in the classroom.

“I want you all to close your eyes and think for a minute about the one thing you would like to get out of today’s session,” he said. Ihrig’s passion for teaching shows clearly as he guides the audience through this exercise.

“Now you’re ready. You’re primed. You each have a sense of purpose and a goal. A back story. That’s the most important element of building a narrative,” he beamed.

"Our brains are wired for story. It's a survival mechanism"

Over the next hour, the four panelists solicited feedback from the audience to create and shape a story together. Elements began to flow and Leipzig took to the white board to take down the barrage of ideas. A few minutes into this exercise, however, he stopped. The audience were hitting a roadblock. Lepizig calledthem out and told them to dig deeper and come up with something real and emotional. After a little hesitation, ideas began to flow again, but this time with refreshed vigor and realism that was more compelling than any stereotypical Hollywood story.

Slowly but surely, the ideas started to take shape and follow an interesting and nontypical narrative. A shoe store, a mother’s relationship with her daughter, and a cliche about people always being out for themselves became the basis for a crowd-sourced original story. Working with these elements, students in UCI’s Drama department will work with Ihrig as well as Jane Page, Head of Directing and faculty member in Drama to create a minimalist production that takes into consideration neuroscientific principles of storytelling. Part II will be early in 2019 and will bring back the audience for a live performance and reflection.

Parting words of advice to the audience of impromptu writers from Adam? “Make it funny!"

Scientist Spotlight: Joren Adams


Interview by Maria Montchal
Art by Blake Miranda

Position at UCI

Research Specialist in the Yassa Lab

What do you study?

I study how memories are affected by mood and mood-related disorders (such as depression).

Why do you study the brain?

I study the brain because it is the organ that shapes how we perceive and experience life, and unlocking its mysteries helps us understand more about the human experience.

When did you become interested in studying the brain?

I became interested in studying the brain in high school around the same time I became interested in studying and advocating for mental health.

What is your most interesting hobby?

I’ve played quidditch for 5 years!

What is your favorite part of playing quidditch?

All of the amazing friendships and connections I’ve made.

What is your favorite flavor of ice cream?


If you could tell the public one thing about neuroscience, what would it be?

I’d tell the public that it’s possible to get involved in neuroscience and study the brain in a wide variety of levels. For example, you don’t have to be a career neuroscientist to advance the field. You can participate in studies, or volunteer at centers. Also, since the brain shapes our entire life experience you can find ways to apply neuroscience to almost any hobby or interest you have whether that be art, music, sports, or technology. Neuroscience is not just about the brain, it’s about how the brain interacts with our world.

Scientist Spotlight is a series of the CNLM Ambassador Program's Communications Committee. The committee is led by graduate student Maria Montchal

About the artist
Blake Miranda is a UCI Alum '18 and has worked at UCI in a variety of academic and clinical roles. He combines his lifelong love of art with the mission of the CNLM Ambassadors. His research interests include how maltreatment in early childhood influences the likelihood of developing neurological disorders, as well as the role of drug and non-drug interventions for Alzheimer’s disease. Click here to email Blake.

CNLM Ambassadors partner with community to enhance public engagement with science

Last Saturday October 20, four UC Irvine CNLM Ambassadors spent their morning at Newport Beach’s Oasis Senior Center participating in the Oasis Senior Health and Resource Fair. The event brought together members of the Orange County Community with vendors, nonprofits and university partners to discuss healthy aging. The Ambassadors who participated are all doctoral students and research staff at UCI who are passionate about community engagement and education. In addition to giving out fun brain prizes, the scientists provided materials from the National Institutes of Health, the Dana Foundation and the National Science Foundation and answered questions about important lifestyle factors that affect how we age including exercise, nutrition, sleep and social engagement. They also brought a real preserved human brain that attendees could hold. “Nothing quite compares to the feeling of holding a real human brain in your own hands. It is an experience that is difficult to forget,” says Manuella Yassa, Director of the CNLM Ambassador Program. Participating in events like the Oasis Senior Health and Resource Fair is a wonderful experience for the junior scientists who have the opportunity to take the knowledge they are creating in the laboratory and disseminate it directly to the community. Myra Sarai Larson and Elena Dominguez, co-chairs of the Adult Programs Committee of the Ambassador Program aim to engage the Orange County adult community in brain science to create a dialogue wherein scientists inform the community and the community in turn informs the scientists.  Scientist-community partnerships enrich society and improve the quality of our science.

About the CNLM Ambassador Program
The CNLM Ambassador program brings together a community of brain scientists who are interested in scientific communication, outreach and public education. The mission of the CNLM Ambassador Program is to enhance public engagement with science. Learn more about the CNLM Ambassador Program here.

Interested in participating in brain research at UC Irvine?
There are various opportunities to volunteer as a research participant at UC Irvine. Because we can’t study the human brain without…human brains, your participation in our research studies is truly invaluable. To learn more about how you can help advance our understanding of the brain by volunteering as a research participant at the CNLM, click here.

Meet the Ambassadors who participated in this event:

Elena Dominguez is a 2nd year doctoral student working toward her Ph.D. in Neurobiology under the mentorship of Dr. Craig Stark and Dr. Claudia Kawas. Elena’s research is focused on understanding the aging brain in individuals over 90 years old. Elena is co-chair of the Adult Committee of the CNLM Ambassador Program



Myra Sarai Larson is a Clinical Project Coordinator in the laboratory of Dr. Michael Yassa. Myra coordinates the clinical studies of the Yassa Translational Neurobiology Lab which aims to understand the brain using neuroimaging techniques.



Logan Harriger is a 4th year doctoral student working toward his Ph.D. in Mathematical and Computational Biology under the mentorship of Dr. Michael Yassa. Logan’s research focuses on understanding the structure and function of brain oscillations (brain waves) and how they support cognition.



Alexandria Weaver is a 1st year doctoral student working toward her Ph.D. in Education. The focus of Alexandria’s research is understanding the effects of music on learning and memory and how musical training may affect cognition.


Dr. James L. McGaugh draws capacity audience to Irvine Barclay Theatre for Inaugural McGaugh-Gerard Lecture on Learning and Memory

Chancellor Howard Gillman, Professor James McGaugh, Professor Michael Yassa

“From the day UCI opened its doors almost exactly 53 years ago to the day, neuroscience and the study of the mind have been among our towering academic strengths. This is due in large part to the contribution and life’s work of James L. McGaugh. Sir Isaac Newton famously said ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. In the field of memory creation, retention and recall, James McGaugh is a giant.'” – Chancellor Howard Gilman, in his introduction of UCI Distinguished Professor Emeritus James L. McGaugh. “It is difficult to imagine what UCI would be like today if Jim McGaugh had decided, back in 1964 to stay at the University of Oregon.”

On the 53rd anniversary of the inauguration of the UCI campus, Professor McGaugh delivered the 1st annual McGaugh-Gerard Lecture on Learning and Memory to a capacity audience at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. In his lecture, McGaugh describes a UCI campus of barren lands peppered with bison and full of promise.  In his lecture, titled “Memory: Pathway to our Future”, he states “Although we all think of memory as a past, the reason that we have memory is it provides information that we can use for behaving in the future. Memory is about the future.” Bridging past and future, McGaugh offered memories of his work and insights into their applications to neuropsychiatric disorders such as PTSD, ending his talk with a hopeful note about what the future may bring.

This new lecture series was made possible by  the McGaugh-Gerard Endowment established by Dr. James L. McGaugh and the family trust of the late Dr. Ralph W. Gerard.

We extend our sincere gratitude to Dr. McGaugh and the Gerard family trust for their philanthropy in establishing this important lectureship at the CNLM to enrich the lives of future generations.

Click here to watch the lecture



Research Update: New study by CNLM Director Michael Yassa suggests your 10 minute walk may be doing more than you think!

A new study published today in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) reports that just 10 minutes of light exercise is sufficient to enhance memory and change connections in the brain. This study is the result of a collaboration between Dr. Michael Yassa, Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior in the School of Biological Sciences and Director of the UC Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and colleagues at the University of Tsukuba including Kazuya Suwabe, Kyeongho Byun and Professor Hideaki Soya.

The study pairs mild exercise with memory tests and brain imaging and finds that engaging in a 10-minute mild exercise session results in immediate improved performance on a memory discrimination task and increased functional connectivity between the hippocampus (a part of the brain known to be important for memory) and the cortex, compared to rest.

Though we have known that exercise improves memory and enhances hippocampus plasticity, this study sheds light on the intensity and duration of exercise necessary to produce these effects. In addition, the results help scientists to understand the neural mechanisms that may be responsible for the enhanced memory.

Professor Yassa and colleagues are expanding this work to older adults and those with early signs of dementia and hopes future studies will be able to answer questions related to how long these effects last and if this type of exercise is sufficient to reverse memory loss in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Click here to read the PNAS article.

Click here to read the UC Irvine Press Release.

Dr. Michael Yassa is Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. He is Director of the UC Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and the UC Irvine Brian Initiative. Contact Dr. Yassa by email here.


The Guardian (9/24/18) – 10 minutes of exercise a day improves memory

UCI Founding Professor and world renowned neuroscientist Dr. James L. McGaugh to give inaugural McGaugh-Gerard Lecture

McGaugh-Gerard Lecture aims to encourage public education, scientific discourse and exposure to world-class science.

IRVINE, CA— On October 8, 2018, the UC Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (CNLM) will welcome community members to the Irvine Barclay Theatre for the 1stAnnual McGaugh-Gerard Lecture on Learning and Memory. UC Irvine Chancellor Howard Gillman will introduce the speaker, UC Irvine Founding Faculty and world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. James L. McGaugh. As Founding Director of the CNLM and the Founding Chair of the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, McGaugh has made seminal contributions to the field of neuroscience and to the University. During his 54 years at UC Irvine, he has served as Dean of Biological Sciences, Vice Chancellor and Executive Vice Chancellor/Provost. McGaugh is internationally recognized for his studies of drug and hormone influences on memory as well as his more recent work on Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. He has been featured on 60 Minutes, PBS Nova, and Scientific American, has authored several notable books, and published well over 500 peer-reviewed publications. The lecture is the first of a free-to-attend public lecture series hosted by the CNLM aiming to engage the public in dialogue about findings from brain science.

The McGaugh-Gerard lectures are made possible by the McGaugh-Gerard Endowment that was established by Dr. James L. McGaugh and the family trust of the late Dr. Ralph W. Gerard. 

Click here for media advisory.


Neurobiological Correlates of Aging Memory | Dr. Carol Barnes, Ph.D.

Carol Barnes, Ph.D. is a Regents’ Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Neurology and Neuroscience, the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging, Director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute and Director of the Division of Neural Systems, Memory & Aging at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Dr. Barnes is past-president of the 42,000 member Society for Neuroscience, an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and an Elected Foreign Member of the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters.

Introduction by Sara Burke, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Florida, Gainsville

This lecture was presented on April 18, 2018 at the International Conference on Learning and Memory (LEARNMEM2018)  in Huntington Beach, CA.

More information about LEARNMEM2018 can be found at


How thinking about memory has changed in the past 35 years | Dr. Lynn Nadel, Ph.D.

Dr. Lynn Nadel, Ph.D. is Regents’ Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Arizona. His work focuses on the functions of the hippocampus in memory and spatial cognition. Together with John O’Keefe, Dr. Nadel coauthored the influential 1978 book The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map. In this lecture given on April 18, 2018 at the International Conference on Learning and Memory in Huntington Beach, CA, Dr. Nadel provides a historical perspective on the field of learning and memory.

For more information about the 2018 International Conference on Learning and Memory, please click here.