Career Interview with Dr. Jeremy Day, Principal Investigator of Neurobiology Lab

Tanvee Sinha

“I’ve never had a day that I don’t want to go to work. I’m so lucky to get to learn something new every single day.” - Jeremy Day, the Principal Investigator of the Day Lab, a neurobiology lab located in Birmingham, Alabama. Day grew up in Huntsville, Alabama with the initial goal of becoming an architect.

“It was in my undergraduate years at Auburn University that I realized my passion did not reside in the architecture field,” Day noted.

It was only after taking an introductory neuroscience class that he realized his interest in neurology, switched his major, and started working with animals at a research lab.

“Although I didn’t know I wanted to pursue neuroscience from an early age,” Day says. “My learning curve with this subject was so rapid and thorough, I [soon] knew it was what I wanted to do.”

After completing his undergraduate degree at Auburn University, he pursued a Ph.D. in behavioral neuroscience at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and investigated molecular and genetic tools in neuroscience as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In 2015, he started his lab there, focusing on how experiences and activity state change how neurons function and therefore modify the behavior of that animal. Some of the Day Lab’s specific areas of interest include learning and memory, addiction and how it changes brain mediation, and how cultured neurons respond to their environment.

In the time that he is not teaching his Mechanisms of Memory class for undergraduate neuroscience majors, he is busy with research and managerial duties. His day consists of writing and applying for grants, personal research, meeting with students and postdocs, and faculty meetings about research projects, teaching curriculum, and departmental issues. While Day is involved in both research and academia, most of his focus is on research. He co-teaches one class in spring semester, unlike other professors who may teach up to four classes each semester.

“While I love teaching and meeting with my colleagues for administrative work, I would choose hands-on research any day,” Day admits.

He loves his job as a Principal Investigator, and his current work matches his expectations of work as a PI from when he initially started the Day Lab. The only thing that differs from his initial expectations are the topics that his lab is studying, but he appreciates that his research, and research in general, isn’t static or predictable. With personal research, he works with his postdocs on numerous projects regarding how different experiences alter the brain and drive future behaviors. His lab focuses on this through “analysis of epigenetic and transcriptional neuropharmacology and regulation in neurons, investigation of neural mechanisms that drive reward directed behaviors, and techniques that look at neural substrates of addiction.”

While there are a few disadvantages that come with being such a young PI, Day thinks that the advantages outweigh them significantly. The main disadvantage he experiences is that occasionally, he has difficulty recruiting people since they could potentially prefer more established labs with senior PIs who are more “accomplished” or “wise.” However, he notes that “being such a young PI improves the overall lab dynamic in both a personal and an academic way.”

Because he is younger than most PIs, however, he is able to understand the references of his students and postdocs, and he understands their environments and what motivates them. This creates a more comfortable and balanced environment.

 “Members of my lab pick up techniques easily,” Day says. “And if they find a more efficient way to perform certain experiments or end up with unexpected results, I learn with them!”

Being a younger PI allows for more learning together, rather than sticking to a rigid set of practices. Additionally, for senior PIs who are already established and have published numerous reports, the failure of one person might not mean as much, since their legacy is “set in stone.” As someone who is still trying to establish the foundation of his lab, Day wants his lab staff and students to succeed just as much as they themselves want to succeed, if not more.

Regarding success, Day touched on the technical skills necessary to be successful in the field of neurobiology and emphasized the need to do molecular genetics research modernly, learning new techniques such as molecular cloning. Additionally, as technology has gotten more advanced, experiments allow for more data input, so a thorough understanding of large-scale data analysis and strong computing skills are necessary.

Most importantly, Day believes that attention to detail is vital. Missing an important detail in experimentation or in data analysis can make the difference between experimental failure and success. Of all skills necessary for success in the lab, Day says, “patience is definitely the hardest.” It is extremely easy to get frustrated with the pace of research, especially for someone who isn’t used to the process. After working for years on a research topic, writing a paper for months, and then submitting it, a paper can still be in review for one or two years after that. Scientists should develop a level of comfort with the fact that it will take a while to publish, especially in the most highly-esteemed journals. If the paper is accepted, its publication could feel somewhat anticlimactic since the work is from years ago. Day recommends that scientists orient themselves around the mindset of being satisfied with the intermediate steps of learning the information and discovering new things instead of worrying about when the paper will be published.

His advice to aspiring researchers is that there is time to specialize later [and while] you do want to pick up those unique skills, it is more important to develop the skills that are translatable across all lab environments.” In every type of research, there are specific experimental techniques that one needs to master if they want to be successful. From lab to lab, however, these practices can vary. For future researchers who want to be prepared for neurobiology research, formal training in computer science and in data management and analysis is imperative. While many labs are focused on wet lab skills, analysis of results to plan for future experiments is a vital step that is often overlooked. These are skills that will be used across many lab environments, and “having a baseline knowledge of these skills will be more helpful than focusing on building up the skills necessary for one type of lab.” Mastering these computing skills takes lots of practice, so starting from an early age can give aspiring researchers a major advantage.

Day loves research, teaching students, and working with staff but believes that research is special because of its aspect of discovery. He is constantly learning new things and enjoys encouraging students and pushing them forward in their development as researchers since he “want[s] to mirror the great advisors that [he] had when [he] was a student.” He hopes that aspiring scientists find this piece beneficial and consider research, or specifically neurobiology research as a potential career.