Cembrowski lab merges mathematical thinking with basic neuroscience

Dr. Mark Cembrowski

A neuroscientist, mathematician, and expert on the hippocampus, Dr. Mark Cembrowski has a rare combination of skills. Now, at the start of a new year, he begins his career at the University of British Columbia with a newly established lab located in the Life Sciences Centre.

Dr. Cembrowski recently arrived on campus following a postdoctoral fellowship at the Janelia Research Campus at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. A rising star in neuroscience, he was recently recognized by the Allen Institute as a Next Generation Leader, only the second Canadian to participate in the program.

He has come to UBC, and to the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, to collaborate with researchers including Dr. Shernaz Bamji, Dr. Tim Murphy, and Dr. Jason Snyder.

“I’m very interested in memory,” said Dr. Cembrowski, “and fear memory in particular. Our ability to store fear memories is important to our survival, but understanding how the brain processes fear memories may enable us to one day prevent acute event-mediated fear memories as a way to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”

PTSD is a mental disorder related to anxiety that can occur as a result of emotional trauma or a traumatic event. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, nearly three million Canadians will experience PTSD over the course of their lifetime. Groups including emergency responders, healthcare professionals, and armed services veterans, as well as refugees and aboriginal people, are at an elevated risk of PTSD. PTSD can affect cognition, decision-making, mood, sleep; physical symptoms can also occur, affecting daily life, social interactions, and productivity at work.

Dr. Cembrowski began his career as a mathematician, but it was when he was offered a role on a project supervised by faculty in math, physics, and neuroscience that he began to appreciate an interdisciplinary approach to research, and, in turn, the study of the brain.

“I went on to study the cells in the hippocampus. It’s a fascinating structure, and we’re still learning how this one small part of the brain can be responsible for such a wide variety of functions,” explains Dr. Cembrowski. Last year, Cembrowski was first author on a paper that appeared in the journal Cell that described the functional roles of cells within the hippocampus, providing insight into complex cellular relationships that were previously thought to be very simple.

“We found that a region that was thought to have a single cell type was actually comprised of two distinct cell types responsible for spatial memory,” said Dr. Cembrowski, who will continue this line of research at his new lab.

“My main attraction to UBC, and its neuroscience community in particular, is how collaboration is really at the heart of so much discovery here,” said Cembrowski. “I am very interested in drug discovery, translational neuroscience, and big data, particularly in generating statistically well-principled statistical analyses; there’s a lot in our community to be excited about right now, and I am excited to be getting to work.”

Dr. Cembrowski is currently seeking graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for positions in his lab. For more information, visit www.cembrowskilab.com, or connect with him on Twitter