Skip to main content


Road to Research: A Q&A with new Assistant Investigator Neşet Özel

"We cannot overstate the importance of basic neurobiological research in terms of its potential to help against a variety of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases."

26 September 2023

What is your educational background?

I grew up in Ankara, Turkey, and went to Ankara Fen (Science) High School. I knew from very early on, during my high school years, that I wanted to study the brain. However, there were no neuroscience majors available in any university in Turkey. So, I started my undergrad in molecular biology and genetics at Bilkent University (also in Ankara), with a full scholarship. Luckily, Bilkent had an exchange program with the University of California that allowed me to spend my junior year at UC San Diego, without having to pay tuition. I was able to take neurobiology classes from some of the foremost experts in the field, in addition to gaining valuable research experience.

After graduation, I started my Ph.D. at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and I’ve been working with fly brains ever since. Three years into my graduate program, my advisor decided to relocate his lab to Berlin, Germany, and I followed. I spent three more years there finishing my projects. I’ve been a postdoctoral fellow at New York University for the last five years.

What brought you to the Stowers Institute? 

I saw Stowers Investigator Julia Zeitlinger, Ph.D., give a talk at the 2019 Fly Cell Atlas meeting at Janelia Research Campus and found her lab’s work to be very interesting. I invited her to give a seminar at NYU Biology in early 2022 and heard great things during her visit about the scientific environment and the incredible level of support provided for basic science at the Institute. When I visited the Institute for an interview, I was simply blown away. From the quality of science being done in each lab to the facilities and the Technology Centers, as well as the leadership’s appreciation for the importance of foundational research, I couldn’t have been more impressed.

Why are you interested in your field of research?

I’ve never found anything more fascinating to study than the brain. It is, after all, the origin of human intelligence. The brain enables us to think, feel, and (consciously) interact with the world around us. For most organs in our body, one could argue it’s relatively straightforward to understand the molecular underpinnings of their functions by simply studying the individual cell types that constitute them. However, that’s not the case when studying the nervous system.

That’s because the brain is by far the most heterogeneous tissue in terms of the number of distinct cell types it contains. Additionally, even though, at this point, we understand quite a lot about how individual neurons function, we know that the real magic lies in their interconnectedness. Perhaps even more fascinating, a lot of those connectivity patterns are encoded in the DNA. Understanding how that information is converted into a functioning brain as an animal develops is, in my opinion, one of the greatest challenges of modern science. I’m just very excited to be a part of that effort.

What inspires you to keep working in your field?

What inspired me to work in neuroscience is my desire to uncover the mysteries of the brain and the opportunities that exist as we learn more about how it works. My motivation to understand the brain’s complexities has never changed, and I don’t think it ever will. I also believe it’s a great time to be in this field. Thanks to the new and constantly improving tools that are at our disposal, the potential for discovery is enormous. If the 20th century was about quantum physics and molecular biology, the 21st century may well be the century of neuroscience.

Neset Özel, Assistant Investigator

What have you found most rewarding about your work?

Academic research produces knowledge for the benefit of the entire world. That’s tremendous. We get to work with very high-level and sometimes quite abstract ideas, but then we also get to test these ideas against reality by doing experiments. There is nothing quite like the feeling of looking at data you produced and realizing that you just found something important that literally nobody else in the world knows. That sense of discovery is indeed very rewarding.

What impact do you hope your research will have?

We cannot overstate the importance of basic neurobiological research in terms of its potential to help against a variety of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases. The latter in particular will only get more prevalent as our population ages because we keep getting better at treating other types of illnesses. But there’s still very few treatment options for most neurological conditions.

For example, decades of clinical trials to treat Alzheimer's have failed to produce any major breakthroughs. I would argue this is probably because we still don’t know enough about the very basics of how brains develop, function, and age. While the work in my lab centers around fruit flies, the field keeps finding that these fundamental principles we aim to discover (and the molecules that underlie them) are very well conserved across the animal kingdom; thus, we hope that our findings will eventually help us better understand the human brain as well.

Beyond the medical impact, many would argue the algorithms which enabled the current AI revolution were fundamentally inspired by neuroscience. Convolutional neural networks in particular were developed based on our knowledge of visual system connectivity. What is even cooler is that we now get to use these algorithms to help with our biological research. I think it’s a pretty good bet that the next AI breakthrough will also be rooted in neuroscience.

Newsletter & Alerts