Researcher spotlight: F32 recipient Dr. Mai-Anh Vu

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Picture of Dr. Mai Anh Vu next to the Researcher Spotlight Series banner

Dr. Mai-Anh Vu is an F32 award recipient who used the funding opportunity to investigate the patterns of dopamine release during behavior. The F32 funding opportunity supports the research training of promising researchers early in their postdoctoral training period. 

The NIH BRAIN Initiative funding opportunities portfolio enables the collaborative and multidisciplinary research necessary to help us understand the brain’s complexities. Dr. Mai-Anh Vu received a BRAIN Initiative F32 Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship award to support her research on dopamine release and how dopaminergic inputs control certain aspects of behavior and project onto single neurons. The F32 program rewards promising postdoctoral researchers early in their careers by enhancing their research training in project areas that advance the goals of the NIHBRAIN Initiative. The next deadline to apply for an F32 award is tomorrow—December 9, 2022. This article is part of a series that highlights the experiences of BRAIN Initiative F32 grantees.  

Check out the interview below to learn more about Dr. Vu’s research on dopamine at Boston University. She discusses what drew her to her research topics, how she determines what to work on next, what training has helped her progress in her career most, and what advice she’d give other early career researchers.  

Would you please introduce yourself?   

Hi! My name is Mai-Anh and I go by she/her pronouns. I am currently working in Dr. Mark Howe’s Lab at Boston University. Prior to coming here, I got my undergraduate degree in cognitive science, worked as a lab tech for a few years, and then went on to get my Ph.D. in neurobiology with a certificate in cognitive neuroscience.  

Throughout my training, I’ve zigzagged my way through neuroscience, bouncing between studying rodent models and humans, and am now currently working in rodent models again. My project here in the Howe Lab is to investigate the spatiotemporal heterogeneity of dopamine release in the striatum. We know that the neuromodulator dopamine serves diverse functions, but what is less known is the spatial and temporal organization with which these different signals are sent downstream. 

What led you to research? 

It all started after my freshman year of college, when I had the opportunity to work as a research assistant in a neuroscience lab over the summer with incredible mentors. They showed me the power of scientific experimentation to answer questions about how the world, and more specifically the brain, works, and I’ve found myself drawn to research ever since.  

I really love solving puzzles, and that’s basically what my work as a scientist entails! For example, are there patterns to dopamine release? What’s a good experiment to start to address my question? Why is something not working? What are the data telling me? How do I best convey just how interesting something is? My work is an endless series of puzzles that lead to clues about how our brains work, and I love that.  

What major unanswered questions do you hope to address?  

I’m broadly interested in learning and motivation, and the intrinsic and extrinsic factors that influence them. Currently, I’ve got my focus turned to dopamine, which plays a crucial role in these processes, and I’m hoping to shed more light on how it does this. 

What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your research and/or career? How have you or how are you working to overcome them?  

I think one of the challenges of this work is that at any given point in time, there are so many things I could be doing, like running experiments, analyzing data, reading papers, going to talks, etc. Knowing how to prioritize my time, and relatedly, knowing when to be in “sprint” mode vs “marathon” mode is a bit of a constant challenge for me. I think it will be a continuous challenge that evolves, but I’m trying to get in the habit of periodically checking in with myself about how/whether my time and effort allocation are translating into the progress I want. 

What would be the next step in your research (or professional development)?  

I’m currently wrapping up a project and getting it ready for submission. I have a bunch of ideas on what questions I want to ask next, so the next step will be to pick a direction, I guess! As for professional development, I’m trying to figure out what I want my career path to be. 

What would be your advice to others who may want to apply to the BRAIN F32 program? 

In graduate school, I studied neural underpinnings of motivation using human functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and in vivo rodent electrophysiology. For my postdoc work, I wanted to focus on dopamine, but this required learning new recording, analysis, and computational techniques.  

I think the BRAIN Initiative F32 program is a great funding opportunity for people like me who are looking to move into an area that is quite different from but dovetails with previous experience. And because I had to apply early in my postdoc before I had even started my project, writing the application really forced me to get up to speed quickly and think through my project very thoroughly. 

Are there any specific relevant training and professional development opportunities that you find useful during the fellowship? 

I’m still sorting out what I want to do next, and I’ve found it pretty helpful to attend some of the workshops about making the transition to faculty. It’s helped give me a sense of what to expect for next steps if I decide to go that route. I’ve also enjoyed the annual BRAIN Initiative Meetings, though I imagine they’d be even better in person! 

Fill in the blank: When I’m not working on a research project, I am… 

When I’m not working on a research project, I am probably hanging out with friends and family, climbing rocks, playing the piano, exploring the city or nature around me, and/or eating tasty food. 

Stay tuned for more highlights on BRAIN Initiative award recipients in some exciting, upcoming series on the BRAIN Blog. If you are a BRAIN Initiative F32 fellow and would like to be featured on our blog, let us know by sending an email to BRAINfeedback@nih.gov!