Q&A with Limor Freifeld

Meet the Zuckerman Faculty Scholar Limor Freifeld at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, studying “Neuro-Engineering”

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“What I find most exciting about interdisciplinary research is that it evolves in unexpected directions and forces researchers to dive into many different areas.  It’s an exciting journey of learning and discovery!”

Dr. Limor Freifeld runs the Neuro-Engineering Lab at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, where her team studies relations between brain structure and function from synapses to neural circuits using the larval zebrafish as a model. The lab applies an interdisciplinary approach with technologies developed for biology and medicine. For her PhD, which she pursued at Stanford University, Dr. Freifeld was selected as one of only 29 people around the world to receive the Fulbright International Science and Technology Award. She also received a Stanford’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship (SIGF). Subsequently, Limor completed two postdoctoral appointments at MIT in neural engineering and received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT.

Please describe your current research, the focus of your lab, and the practical implications of your research

We develop and apply technology to study bio molecules on the nanoscale to unravel the structures allowing neurons in the brain to communicate and process information. With additional technologies, we also capture this function in real time. Of particular interest to us are synapses, the connection points between neurons. Relating synapse structure to function has clinical relevance, as synaptic dysfunction gives rise to many neurological disorders such as epilepsy and autism .

One thing that is unique about our approach is our use of a super-resolution fluorescent microscopy method called expansion microscopy.  With this technology, which was invented in the lab of my post-doc advisor prof. Ed Boyden, we embed tissues in gels to physically expand or magnify them, allowing us to study their structure with nanoscale resolution. Moreover, we apply this technology to the larval zebrafish model. Breakthroughs in technologies for optical recording of neural activity made larval zebrafish a highly popular model for neuroscience studies. Since they are transparent and their brains are quite small, neural activity in the brains of these vertebrates can be monitored non-invasively, with cellular resolution and throughout the brain. This makes it possible to link synaptic and neural function to function of entire neural circuits transforming sensory inputs to motor outputs – the animal’s behavior. The fundamental principles or building blocks of how brains compute, which can thus be revealed, are shared between all animals, including humans.

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What inspired you to pursue this area of research?

I became interested in how the brains work early in my life – while taking a biology course through the Open University in the 9th grade. I was fascinated by the transition from electrical communication along neurons to chemical communication through synaptic connections between neurons. Initially I wanted to become a doctor to pursue these interests and make a positive impact on human life quality. However, just before I started pursuing higher education, I realized my interests in multiple fields, including physics, math, chemistry and biology, can be combined to make such impact by developing technologies for disease characterization and intervention. Thus, I pursued a BSc and MSc in Biomedical Engineering at Tel-Aviv University. An interest in additional opportunities for advanced professional training and conducting interdisciplinary research applying engineering knowledge to study brains, led to my transition to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering at Stanford, while conducting research in neurobiology labs. At Stanford I studies how the brain represents and processes information, in particular visual information using the fruit-fly, Drosophila, as a model.  In my post-doc at MIT, I switched to the larval zebrafish model due to its unique advantages in studies using optical recording and manipulation of neural activity.

What does it mean to you to be part of the Zuckerman Faculty Scholars Program?  

I originally went to the United States on a Fulbright Science and Technology award. I am very grateful for the Fulbright program. I had wonderful mentors at Stanford and it was an amazing growth experience.  I accepted this fellowship knowing I would come back to Israel.  Nevertheless, becoming a Zuckerman Faculty Scholar facilitated my transition back to Israel and to a tenure-track faculty position at the Technion’s Biomedical Engineering department.

It is an honor to be part of this program. I am very grateful for the funding. I have a beautiful lab that allows us to realize all our research ambitions and make them possible.  It is also great to be in a supportive community of early-career scientists, and helpful to learn from each other’s experiences as well.

What do you enjoy most about your research? 

I love the moments of discovery – looking at the data after we acquire it and realizing something I didn’t know, and no one in the world knows about yet.  Being able to do that as a team with the students I mentor and collaborate with is even more rewarding.  Everything we do is very visual, so we literally see surprising structures or activity patterns and can immediately know we discovered something new, which is very exciting.

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Where do you hope your research will have the greatest impact? 

I have two distinct answers to this question: First, I want to have an impact on basic science. To advance understanding of how we learn, adapt and change how our brains operate. Second, I want to have an impact on medicine, to improve the lives of patients suffering from neurological disorders, and their families.

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