Jenna Renee Sternberg

Brain and Spine Institute (ICM), Paris, France


What is your work/research topic? I am a neuroscientist, and my primary interest lies in understanding how internal sensory processing occurs and sends feedback to the central nervous system. I am currently working on understanding how neurons within the spinal cord read out signals carried by the cerebrospinal fluid. I am also interested in developing tools to enable better understanding of how neurons are active and communicate in awake and behaving animals.

Sternberg_J_LadyBlog2Jenna Sternberg is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Brain and Spine Institute. Follow Jenna on Twitter @allneuro.

What was your best day of science? One of my favorite moments was the first time I performed calcium imaging. Calcium levels correlate with increased neural activity, and modern tools allow us to visualize calcium dynamics by recording changes in fluorescence. The result is that you can watch in real-time when a neuron or group of neurons is active. I’ll never forget the first day I performed these experiments at the very beginning of my PhD and how moved I was by the beauty of coordinated activity in the nervous system.

What was your worst day in science? Success and failure come in slow waves in science. I wouldn’t say I’ve had a worst day, but there were weeks or months when nothing was working or I lost focus on what were the “killer” experiments that I should prioritize.

What did/are you study at university? As an undergraduate, I majored in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. I thought I would attend medical school, so I took a fair share of courses in chemistry, math, and physics. I also loved humanities; I minored in French and took courses in political science and sociology. I had the opportunity to work in Ed Boyden’s lab for two years during my studies, and this introduced me to the concepts of manipulating neural activity in freely-moving animals while recording behavioral output, using optogenetic tools to achieve this goal.

What does your average day look like? I usually work 10-7 or 10-8. I work with zebrafish, so I will usually start in the fish room, collecting eggs, screening for fluorescence, checking on tanks. If I am doing experiments, I will set those up, probably eat a quick lunch, then do experiments at one of our microscopes for fast imaging or recording from neurons for the rest of the day. Otherwise, I go to my desk, put a pair of headphones on and work on analysis.

What are some of the highlights of your career right now? I was fortunate to receive a Masters and PhD fellowship from the Paris School of Neuroscience, a research network dedicated to attracting foreign students to France. Attending a summer course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory motivated me to stay in research after my PhD. Being able to get away from my own research for a month reminded me of some of the cool and exciting possibilities in a broader context. I have also had a few opportunities to teach or mentor younger students, and these are almost always highlights.

What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? All of the big fancy microscopes are fun to use.


Sternberg_J_LadyBlog1.jpgWhere did you grow up? Rural southern Delaware, USA

What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? Architect, economist, veterinarian, doctor…It changed weekly.

What do you do to relax outside of lab? Reading and yoga

Do you have any pets? I grew up with dogs, cats, birds, fish, a tarantula, chickens, and horses, but my apartment is 23m^2; I’m not sure an animal would be happy in it!

Do you have any fun hobbies? Salsa dancing, cycling

If you want to talk about your family, what is your family life? How did your family develop alongside your career? My family is incredibly supportive of me. Both of my parents are physicians and are very scientifically minded. They see the importance of my work and understand why I have taken my current path.



What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Be assertive and don’t undermine yourself. Success and funding rates are mostly the same for men and women, but often gender disparity results because of lower percentages of women applicants (see Reineke Pohlhaus et al., 2011). Put yourself out there and find good mentors to support you.

Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? I spent a summer in a research lab abroad while at university. My mentor was a new postdoc, and she took the time to show me how to do experiments and analysis. It made me feel that I could do research too if I wanted to.

Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? I fell into science. I thought I would become a veterinarian but was scared off by the level of debt of veterinary school graduates in the US. Then I thought I would become a doctor. When it came time to apply, I wasn’t ready and decided to spend some time in France to do research and learn French. I ended up loving the problem solving and tackling unsolved questions in research and decided to stay to do a PhD. Wanting to remain in science came later. I would love to start my own lab one day, but as a postdoc, I also have to face the reality that only 20% or so of postdocs in life sciences ultimately find faculty positions. We are obliged to keep other options open and explore opportunities outside academia.

What was your biggest challenge during your degree? My project was stagnant for a long time, and I wasn’t very good at expanding my skill set to address the questions I needed and wanted to answer. I managed to get out the rut by learning electrophysiology, which I immediately loved, and this enabled me to get some answers that could push my project forward. Another challenge was having the confidence to feel that I could tackle problems on my own.


Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? Science is about creativity. The more viewpoints available and diversity in thought lead to a greater ability to solve big problems. Having diversity of any type is critical to push science forward.


What is your favorite book? I have too many, I could never choose. I keep copies of Ramón y Cajal’s Advice for a Young Investigator and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style on my desk. These are my go-to books in the lab. I go back to them over and over again when writing and thinking about being a scientist (Ignoring some of the comments on patriotism and marriage from Ramón y Cajal).

What is your favorite desk snack? Yogurt

What is your favorite cartoon? Peanuts

What would you listen to while writing? I usually need silence to write.

What was your favorite subject in high school? Math and History

What color socks are you wearing? Blue

What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? A LEGO Iron Man that is holding an Italian flag made out of a transfer pipette and paper.

Organization nut, or curated chaos? curated chaos, though sometimes entropy takes over.


In this article, we generated a genetically-encoded toxin that can silence output from a genetically-specified population of neurons. We then used it to show how one population of neurons located in the hindbrain and spinal cord influences locomotion in the larval zebrafish.

A collaboration with physicists to implement low-cost optical sectioning on a wide field microscope.

A collaboration with mathematicians to perform causality analysis, which allows inferences of how activity flows between neurons, on in vivo data.

An automated program to track swimming movements of larval zebrafish, quantify kinematics of behavior, and classify types of movement.