Breakthrough Star Fabienne Poulain

Breakthrough Star: Fabienne Poulain

Neuroscience researcher looks for ways brain development affects behavior

As a teenager growing up in France, Fabienne Poulain was always interested in human behavior, fascinated by how the brain develops and works. Now, as an assistant professor in biological sciences, she works to understand neural development and disorders by studying how neurons form connections during development.

“When we think about the brain or the nervous system in general, we’re thinking about millions of neurons that make billions of connections,” she says. “The connections between neurons are arranged in a very precise manner so that neurocircuits function properly.

“There are some disorders in which connections are not formed accurately and that miswiring can lead to dysfunctions or behavioral problems or things like that. I’m fascinated in how an organ so complex as the brain develops and forms in such a precise manner.”

Research can teach you a lot, of course, about science. But more than that, you learn resilience, you learn integrity, you learn many life values being in the research lab.

Fabienne Poulain, biological sciences professor

To better understand brain development, Poulain studies zebrafish — about 5,000 of them are housed in her lab. Zebrafish are ideal for her research because the embryos are transparent, making it possible to easily see how neurons form connections during development.

“The principles that govern brain development in humans are actually the same in zebrafish. So what we learn from the zebrafish often translates into the human brain,” she says. “And because they’re transparent, we can watch the brain develop in real time under the microscope.”

Her work has been successful — both in securing large grants from the National Institutes of Health and in advancing the understanding of brain development.

Poulain’s NIH R01 application was funded the first time she submitted it, an accomplishment met by only about 8 percent of grant applicants.

“There are exceptionally few NIH R01 grants funded on the first submission across the nation, and I think that this is an exceptional circumstance here at UofSC. As further evidence of her career trajectory, she is increasingly invited for presentations on her research, with recent talks at regional/national/international meetings and seminars at peer/aspirant institutions,” wrote Jeff Twiss, the SmartState Chair in Childhood Neurotherapeutics, in nominating Poulain for a Breakthrough Star award.

That research includes the discovery of the role of specific proteins that mediate communication between neurons and maintain functional neuronal connections during development.

Poulain came to the university in 2015 and created her lab, which includes the university’s first zebrafish facility. The work is part of a growing neuroscience group led by Twiss.

“That was part of what convinced me to come here. I saw I’d be part of building that group and recruiting new colleagues. And that’s exciting,” she says. “The scientific environment here was fantastic. I have a very supportive department with nice and supportive colleagues. That was one of my main criteria. You’re only as good as the people who surround you. I was convinced by that.”

She also is supportive of the graduate and undergraduate students who work in the Poulain lab.

“Students have an integral part in the work we do. Research can teach you a lot, of course, about science. But more than that, you learn resilience, you learn integrity, you learn many life values being in the research lab.”

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