Portrait of Kaspar Podgorski standing in his lab wearing a helmet with a climbing rope over his shoulder.
Ready to rock: While running a neuroscience lab at the Allen Institute, climber-scientist Kaspar Podgorski makes time to rock climb mountains around the world.
Photography by Cameron Karsten

Climbing to new heights: Q&A with Kaspar Podgorski

The optical physiologist tracks neural computations inside the lab and scales sheer rock faces outside—even after a life-changing fall.

Outside of work, neuroscientist Kaspar Podgorski’s true love—well, aside from his wife, he says—is climbing. As a teenager he learned to climb on the limestone cliffs in Ontario, Canada, and after college, he moved across the country for the granite slabs outside Vancouver.

It was during this climbing “heyday” that Podgorski—who now leads the optophysiology lab at the Allen Institute for Neural Dynamics—found his toehold in neuroscience, first as a research technician and later a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia.

Five years after starting his first lab at the Janelia Research Campus, in early 2020, he fell—about 140 feet—as he rappelled down a climbing route in El Potrero Chico Park outside Monterey, Mexico. He’d been distracted, he says, and hadn’t noticed that he had reached the end of one length of his rope. Surgeries to correct his broken femur and ruptured spleen led to more procedures, a medically induced coma and an emergency flight back to the United States in a private jet.

After four years of recovery, Podgorski’s ropes are back on the cliffs. He competed in a climbing competition in Index, Washington, last year in which he pushed himself to compete in the hardest category of routes, and he has plans to climb in Patagonia, Argentina, in January.

His best ideas, he says, come to him in the mountains, where he can ponder his research—specifically how to study the brain’s computations using advanced microscopes that image glutamate across thousands of synapses.

Podgorski spoke with The Transmitter about the challenge of outdoor rock climbing and how his fall reaffirmed his career choice.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Transmitter: Why are you drawn to “free climbing” mountains, the type of climbing that relies on hands and feet to scale the rock? Does it influence your passion for science? 

Kaspar Podgorski: Mountaineering is hard. You have to be willing to work your body and your mind very, very hard for long periods of time before there’s a payoff. It’s not uncommon to spend days getting to the base of a wall and then climbing for 24 hours in a push to make it to the top of the thing and then back down safely. Sometimes you turn back and don’t make it, and sometimes you do—it’s just super satisfying to have been unsure if you’re going to be able to do a thing and then find out that you can do it.

That is sort of the definition of science, right? You ask yourself a question: “Is it possible to do this?” And then you find out. Most of the time, no, you can’t do it or you can’t do it the way that you envisioned it at first, and you have to try again. But every once in a while you figure it out, and that’s really, really satisfying.

TT: How do you integrate your outdoor adventures into your life as leader of a research lab?

KP: There is certainly less time to climb than there was when I was a graduate student or during that wonderful heyday before I even became a graduate student. To take a day off, it’s not that big of a deal. But a trip to Patagonia, for example, that’s a month of your life if you want to plan for the realities of weather down there. And that is the sort of thing that you get to plan a year in advance.

Photograph of Kaspar Podgorski riding a bike.
Land and sea: Podgorski commutes to the Allen Institute in Seattle by bike, by foot and, on occasion, by kayak.

TT: Does work intrude into your thoughts on your climbing trips?

KP: I actually wouldn’t say it intrudes; I would say it’s very complementary. You’re in a completely different context—completely different things matter, right? If you’re camping out in the wilderness under the stars, you’re basically thinking about, “Oh, what am I going to eat tonight? What state are my boots in?” But I feel that I have some of my most creative insights into work problems from having that separation and not being able to immediately work on it.

TT: What do you remember of that fall in Mexico? 

KP: Well, I hit the ground and lost consciousness. I was told later that I lost consciousness for only about 30 seconds. I have this very interesting memory of waking up and having this sort of amnesia where I didn’t know where I was at that moment. My memory crept back to me forward in time, so I remembered a flight to Mexico the day before, and I remembered the night before, and I remembered climbing up that wall. I was lying on the flat rock, and at some point I looked up and I realized that I broke my femur, so I knew that I wasn’t going to be walking out of there.

Through the greatest stroke of luck, someone there was involved with the search and rescue team. A huge community of climbers and other folks on the search and rescue team came together and placed bolts in the rock to help lower me down and carry the stretcher that I was in.

I remember having these really interesting conversations with people who were keeping me awake and in good spirits. It took about six hours to get me to an ambulance, and the ambulance took another hour or so to get me to the hospital. I stayed conscious the whole time and was feeling very optimistic when I got to the hospital that I had escaped a really bad situation and now everything was going to be fine.

TT: What was your recovery like? 

KP: It was quite an ordeal. I got out of the hospital at the very end of February 2020, and, of course, the COVID-19 lockdown started in March 2020. Given that I was intubated on oxygen fighting lung problems, I got very lucky that the timing wasn’t a little bit later.

Though I’d say that the sum of having this accident and having that happen at the same time as COVID was less than the sum of the two independent tragedies. COVID was a huge thing for everyone around the world, of course, and for science—labs shut down; experiments had to halt. But in some sense, it’s almost fortunate that this happened to me at a time when a lot of things were slowing down.

TT: What lessons do you carry with you from that fall?

KP: I found myself thinking about what it was that really mattered to me in life and in my work, like what was it I really wanted to achieve with this one precious life that I have. I felt really good about the work that I had done, but I just really wanted to do more of it. There’s a certain clarity that these sorts of things bring to life decisions, and in many aspects of my life that clarity has been good and helpful. In work, it has definitely galvanized my effort on this core problem that I really want to work on.

TT: What is that core scientific problem?

KP: I’ve spent my whole career trying to develop ways to read out input-output operations of neurons. Neurons can compute things in a few milliseconds, which means that we have to image as many synapses as we can on a neuron at hundreds or thousands of hertz, times per second, in behaving animals that are doing something interesting. We’ve been developing the microscopes that can record this and the fluorescent proteins that we genetically engineer in the neurons to report these signals. Those two things have come together, and now we’re finally doing the experiments to actually see directly the input and output of neurons and be able to fit these input-output operations, these computations that individual neurons perform.

TT: What advice do you have for researchers who like to adventure outside but find themselves spending lots of time in the lab? 

KP: I think that the time away from the lab is a good thing. It’s no coincidence that I’m in Seattle right now, which is one of the best places in the states and, much like Vancouver, has fantastic ocean sports and climbing and running and biking and skiing and many, many other things. Lots of people that I work with have a great work-life balance, and I think that’s fantastic. We all should find ways to get as much joy out of our lives as possible. I think that you get joy from work, and you get joy from things that aren’t work. We all have to find a balance for ourselves that is most satisfying to us.

Photograph of Kaspar Podgorski standing in a spacious interior office with a rope attached to his climbing harness and extending beyond the frame.
Climb on: A dramatic fall during a rock-climbing expedition in early 2020 has not kept Podgorski from the mountain sport he loves.

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