Improvising to study brains in the wild: Q&A with Nacho Sanguinetti-Scheck

A joke at a neuroscience summer program nearly a decade ago ignited a lifelong research interest for this Uruguayan scientist—one that plays on his comedic strengths.

Neuroscientist Nacho Sanguinetti deadpanning the camera as he sits at his desk with a photo cutout of an agouti on his computer.
Tough audience: Nacho Sanguinetti-Scheck credits YouTube as a major inspiration—and a rich source of videos showing flexible animal behaviors, including those of the agouti, a cutout of which sits on his keyboard.
Photography by Simon Simard

Uruguayan neuroscientist Juan Ignacio (Nacho) Sanguinetti-Scheck can trace his passion for studying animal behavior in the wild to a joke he made in 2015.

He was a Ph.D. student at the time and also performed improv a few times per week. And so when he attended the Transylvanian Experimental Neuroscience Summer School that year and learned how to use virtual-reality scenarios and mazes to study animal behavior, he teased that he instead wanted to study animals in what he called “real reality.”

That crack led to a stroke of inspiration, and he came up with techniques to study the neural basis for navigation in mice living in a garden patch. “This was something that really ignited me” and fueled the work for his Ph.D. and postdoctoral research, he says.

Next January, he is starting his own lab at the University of Pennsylvania, where he plans to continue to use wireless neural recordings and movement trackers on agoutis and other animals to study them living in their natural environments in South America.

The Transmitter spoke with Sanguinetti-Scheck about the parallels he sees between his background in improv and his interest in studying animal behavior in the wild, as well as his goals for his new lab.

The Transmitter: What will you focus on in your new lab?

Nacho Sanguinetti-Scheck: My new lab is going to focus on what I think of as integrative neurobiology. I want to study neuroscience and the brain from a perspective that makes sense in biology. Generally, as neuroscientists, we’re dealing with an experiment that happens in the conditions that we set and in the moment we set it to happen. But there are very deep roots of processes that are changing the experiment and the result. That’s the effect of the environment. It’s not the same to do an experiment in a tiny square box as it is to do it outside. It’s not the same to do an experiment with an orphan mouse versus a mouse that has been reared by its parents.

All these levels of processes—evolution, early life experience and environment—are influencing the experiments we do. My lab wants to have an integrative approach to neurobiology, using nontraditional model organisms and studying them in comparative ways in their natural environments, and paying attention to evolution.

TT: What are the questions or problems you most want to solve with your work?

NSS: The question driving me the most has been trying to understand how animals are capable of flexible behaviors and behaviors that we don’t understand. In any kind of science, we focus on things that are repeatable so that we can have statistical understanding of the processes. This tends to have a bias towards either things that animals do all the time that are fixed action patterns, or things that animals can be trained to do. But what I’m interested in are situations in which animals can innovate.

The way I see it is that we’re on the verge of a very interesting transition in our understanding of behavior. YouTube is one of my biggest sources of inspiration, and if you search for animal behavior you will find incredible things. You will find a dog that tries to do a cartwheel after its owner did a cartwheel. You will find a bull and a goat trying to push each other, and the bull lets itself be pushed by the tiny goat. There are all these interesting behaviors that society has observed but that scientists have not yet tackled.

Neuroscientist Nacho Sanguinetti with a microphone on a red couch looking at black and white photo cutouts of realistic agoutis set up like an audience.
Doing what comes naturally: In his research, Sanguinetti-Scheck pays attention to outlier behaviors—something he say pays off in comedy and in studying animals.

TT: What are some of the best and worst things about studying animals in the wild?

NSS: Some of the best things are that they are everywhere and amazing. Where I will base my work, in Gamboa, Panama, there are agoutis everywhere, almost like free pets, because everybody feeds them. Their behaviors are really fascinating, how they interact with food, how they decide what to eat and how they interact with each other.

The difficulty is that it’s a large animal, so you need to be careful. They have incredibly sharp teeth, mostly because they also need to open very hard shells of fruit pods. Another hard element is that you’re in the field—there’s rain; there’s mosquitoes; there’s ticks; but it’s worth it. The joy of being in the rainforest is incomparable. The density of life in the rainforest is just incredible—mammals, reptiles, insects, of course, trees, fruits. It’s luscious. I love that, and it’s one of my favorite things, even though it can be pretty annoying.

TT: What are you looking forward to the most when starting up the lab?

NSS: I’m looking forward to building an amazing team. I think the biggest jump between being a researcher and starting a lab is trying to build a team. I’m very excited to bring people with ideas and passions that are diverse, beyond their lab expertise.

TT: Does that kind of cross-disciplinary approach influence you and your work?

NSS: Yeah, I think so. Science can be very effective at disseminating culture and at establishing new technologies that shape our culture, but art can also be incredibly powerful at shaping our culture as well. As an academic in general, I think a lot about ways in which my science can be informed by culture and my science can inform culture.

TT: Do you see parallels between improvisation and the behaviors you study in animals?

NSS: Improv has taught me to listen and to pay attention to what is going on—and that has been important in studying behavior. I have a good ear for what animals are doing and perhaps their goals and objectives. And I can see things very quickly, because improv has trained my brain to see patterns of behavior. And the most important thing, if you want to be funny, is to detect behaviors that are outliers that are going beyond the norm. You create a certain scene; then, when somebody does something that goes against the world you created, you need to pay attention to that, because that’s probably going to be the funny thing. And that’s the way I also like to go to the field and try to do fieldwork and study the behavior of animals in their natural environments, to try to see if I can observe things of interest that maybe were not observed before.

TT: Are you planning to have traditions in your lab?

NSS: One of my ideas is to revamp scientific journaling. Back in the day, when naturalists were trying to discover and understand the world, they would write journals about what they saw, like “The Voyage of the Beagle,” where Charles Darwin describes all his travels. I’m proposing to collaborate with my colleague, Caroline Hu, assistant professor of biology at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who has a class on comics for science. We’d like to send students to be field assistants with the agouti for the next few years, and to have a yearly installment of what happened in the field in a 21st-century comic book kind of style.

TT: How do you describe your job at cocktail parties?

NSS: Very badly. I usually say that I’m a neuroscientist and I study what the brain does to orchestrate the behavior of animals. When you say neuroscientist, people are incredibly impressed. They think you are a rocket scientist sending ships to Saturn or something like that, but I’m not. I’m just a person that is observant and curious and also knows some math.

Neuroscientist Nacho Sanguinetti smiling in front of a shelf with a realistic black and white photo cutout of an agouti behind him.
Comic collaboration: As a tradition in his new lab, Sanguinetti-Scheck plans to have student field assistants help to create a yearly comic book style compendium of failures and successes.

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