Visitor of the Week: Ahlem Assali


Meet Ahlem Assali of the Medical University of South Carolina. The French-Tunisian national is a postdoctoral scholar in Christopher Cowan’s lab. Ahlem returned to CSHL for her second Molecular Mechanisms in Neuronal Connectivity meeting where she presented a poster titled “Role of EphB1 in axon guidance and fear memory.”

What are your research interests? What are you working on?
I’m interested in the molecular mechanisms that underlie proper brain wiring during development. Using mouse mutants, I currently investigate the role of certain genes in axon guidance, synaptic connectivity and, later on, in behavior as well as the potential involvement of these genes in neurodevelopmental disorders.

How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?
My fascination with brain development began in my PhD years in Patricia Gaspar’s lab during which I used the visual system to study the establishment of neuronal connectivity. I focused on activity-dependent mechanisms involved in synaptic refinement with Alexandra Rebsam and on cAMP signaling involved in the pruning of axonal branches with Xavier Nicol. In line with my PhD and current post-doc work, I would love to pursue my contribution to our understanding of the molecular mechanisms involved in the development of brain connectivity. One phenomenon that particularly amazes me is the neuronal plasticity occurring during critical periods of brain development, when experience interacts with genetics to shape the young brain and predict future personality/behavior.

How did your scientific journey begin?
Since my first experience in a lab, I realized that scientific research fits really well with my curious personality. As scientists, we develop creative hypotheses based on available knowledge and our own preliminary observations, then we design/perform experiments to test our ideas and analyze the data until we come close to some truth. It’s this combination of intellectual and manual work that makes science so personally fulfilling. Science also has a remarkable way to bring people together from all backgrounds/countries to advance our knowledge as a human community.

Nicolas Narboux-Nême introduced me to this fun world of neuroscience: he walked me through my first brain dissection, taught me how to stain for my first proteins, and how to brainstorm on/troubleshoot my first experimental issues. I’m very grateful for the time he granted me during the weeks I followed him around the Gaspar Lab.

Was there something specific about Molecular Mechanisms of Neuronal Connectivity meeting that drew you to attend?
As a mid-term postdoc, I’m in a stage in my career where identifying the focus of my work and heavily networking are important. This meeting is a perfect opportunity to do both: cutting-edge research topics in neurodevelopment are featured through the great talks and poster presentations, and allows me to interact with the more global scientific community.

What is your key takeaway from the meeting?
My key takeaway from this meeting is the discovery of the fascinating roles glial and microglial cells play in brain development, nerve injury, and multiple other brain functions. As neuroscientists, we sometimes tend to focus our work on neurons but should it would be beneficial for us to take into consideration this crucial brain population of glial and microglial cells. I’m glad that the meeting organizers added a beautiful session centered on these cells!

What did you pick up or learn from the meeting that you plan to apply to your work?
While I was presenting my poster, I received a very useful feedback from someone very knowledgeable about the field I work in which I’ll take into account as I design my next experiments.

If someone curious in attending a future iteration of this meeting asked you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?
It is a great meeting! It is a small meeting featuring a focused-but-still-diverse topic and experts in the different fields of neurodevelopment who you can interact with and who will provide useful insight and feedback on your project. The most current advances on brain development are discussed it’s a productive way to step away from your very-focused everyday-lab work and gain fresh perspectives on your work and think at a global level.

How many CSHL meetings have you attended? How about courses at CSHL?
This is my second CSHL meeting and I have every plan to come back for future ones. And I’ve never attended any of the courses but I would love to!

What do you like most about your time at CSHL?
I love the fact it is surrounded by nature and that the talks are transmitted to screens placed on the patio. Attending a talk while feeling the breeze and hearing the birds sing in the background is a treat you don’t often experience. Its waterfront, and somewhat isolated location is ideal – and conducive – for focusing on science for a few days. I enjoyed re-connecting with my those I worked with in the past and to catch up with friends. And the food was really great too.

Thank you to Ahlem for being this week's featured visitor. To meet other featured scientists - and discover the wide range of science that takes part in a CSHL meeting or course - go here.