Key Connections

Viviana Gradinaru’s (BS ’05) has a fascination with the inner workings of the brain that developed when she was a Caltech undergraduate. But as she delved deeper into her research, she encountered a stumbling block: the field of neuroscience lacked the tools she needed to accomplish her objectives.

Her solution? To design groundbreaking techniques and technologies that would enable her to visualize the unobservable and manipulate the inaccessible.

Today, Gradinaru is an assistant professor of biology and biological engineering and a Heritage Principal Investigator at Caltech. Her lab, along with neuroscience labs all over the world, utilizes optogenetics and CLARITY—actuator and sensor tools and imaging methods that Gradinaru was instrumental in developing.

“Caltech has the collective mental power of students and faculty across disciplines to pursue the most unexpected venues.”
- Viviana Gradinaru, BS ’05

Gradinaru’s lab benefits greatly from Caltech’s culture of embracing innovative, early-stage investigations. The support that is available to faculty for promising projects with undefined outcomes is crucial, because the path for leading-edge pursuits is unknowable. Foundations, corporations, and individual donors, as well as partnerships with hospitals and other research institutions, create a unique source of power that enables Caltech to give new technologies and novel approaches time to incubate until they develop into research that is eligible for more traditional funding channels, such as federal grants.

“If a project takes an interesting direction that we didn’t anticipate, we’ll follow it,” Gradinaru says. “Caltech has the collective mental power of students and faculty across disciplines to pursue the most unexpected venues.”

Gradinaru’s group is currently exploring the long-term effects of deep brain stimulation, a method for treating motor and mood disorders. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation believes that these investigations hold great promise: In 2015 they awarded Gradinaru a two-year fellowship award, which she can invest in equipment, technical assistance, or any other activity directly related to her research, wherever it may lead.

Gradinaru is the faculty director of the newly formed BI CLOVER Center (Beckman Institute Center for CLARITY, Optogenetics, and Vector Engineering Research), which provides training and also facilitates optogenetic studies, custom vector development, and tissue clearing projects for researchers across the disciplines at Caltech. By helping to catalyze early-stage research, the center provides traction for investigators to advance basic science objectives as well as secure additional funding for continued technological developments.

Giving Priorities