Why neuroscience needs neuroinformatics: a Q+A with Helena Ledmyr

In support of Brain Awareness Week, we’re highlighting some of the amazing benefits of brain research and showcasing the progress being made by researchers around the world (learn more here). In this blog, Helena Ledmyr tells us about her current role at the International Neuroinformatics Coordinating Facility and how neuroinformatics is so fundamental to the progress of brain research.

Helena Ledmyr
Helena Ledmyr

How did you get interested in science and, in particular, neuroscience?

My grandpa taught me about everyday science when I was a kid: plant physiology (you have to help me pollinate the plum tree, the bees are taking detours around it!), herpetology (don’t worry, that snake isn’t poisonous), physics (the center of gravity is too high, you have to stack the wood differently), and nutrition (you don’t have to chew ice cream! This is taking too long!).

He also saved his popular science magazines for my visits, so there would always be a whole stack of them for me to read. And when it was time to apply for an MSc program, the Stockholm University catalog mentioned ‘Jurassic Park’ in the description of the molecular biology program. Naturally, I couldn’t resist that.

Neuroscience happened by opportunity. Although I did take neuroscience courses as an undergrad, my PhD was in cardiovascular disease. It was not until a few years after my postdoc that I ended up at INCF, and since then neuroscience and neuroinformatics has been the scientific focus of my job.

Neuroscience happened by opportunity. Although I did take neuroscience courses as an undergrad, my PhD was in cardiovascular disease. It was not until a few years after my postdoc that I ended up at INCF, and since then neuroscience and neuroinformatics has been the scientific focus of my job.

What is your scientific background?

I’m a molecular biologist with a PhD in genetics – formally in cardiovascular medicine, but I learned more genetics than medicine as a PhD student. My project focused on polymorphisms in a gene that is involved with lipid metabolism, and their effect on cardiovascular disease. After my PhD, I did a post-doc on gene therapy, developing vectors for the treatment of cardiovascular disease.

How do you spend your day in your job?

My main responsibilities are development and communications.

Development includes dealing with the governing board and executive committee – making sure necessary items are put on meeting agendas, that appendices are prepared, and that minutes and other follow-up tasks are done. I also spend a lot of time finding new collaborators (research groups, funding agencies, industry representatives, publishers), and maintaining relationships with these groups.

I’m coordinating the communications team, consisting of three people plus myself. My responsibilities include developing and implementing our communications strategy, and having oversight of all our outreach online (website, social media etc.) and offline (our annual congress, exhibitions at other conferences etc.).

Internally, I manage the tools we use for project management and also support our staff with training & support for these tools.

A regular workday for me typically consists of doing things in all these three areas. I spend a lot of time in our project management tool, my inbox, in meetings, and doing research online (twitter being my preferred source).

What makes this a science job and what do you like most about it?

I work close to science and closely with scientists, either in communicating the science done by our community, or match-making scientists and their projects to potential collaborators, funding, meetings, or other activities.

It’s fantastic to have contact with so many great scientists all over the world – the INCF community reaches across North and South America, Europe, and Australasia.

What is neuroinformatics and how does it contribute to the progress of brain research?

Neuroinformatics can be described as how information across all levels and scales of neuroscience integrates – fitting together data that comes from vastly different timescales.

Neuroinformatics can be described as how information across all levels and scales of neuroscience integrates – fitting together data that comes from vastly different timescales, how to store, analyze and share datasets, comparing animals with very different nervous systems (or even the same type of animal investigated with different tools and techniques), and linking findings on the molecular level to their effects on single cells as well as the whole brain.

Neuroinformatics also comes into play in how to document what you did to your data so that you and others can reproduce your findings, or reuse the data in another study.

Why is it important to raise awareness of neuroscience?

Non-contagious neurological disorders and mental and behavioral disorders have been estimated to comprise 10% of the total global burden of disease. In Europe alone, brain disease costs almost €800bn in 2010 – and a vast amount of unquantifiable suffering.

It’s clear that we need to better understand how the brain works and how to treat its various diseases. There’s a good summary on the need for neuroscience and neuroinformatics available here.

Non-contagious neurological disorders and mental and behavioral disorders have been estimated to comprise 10% of the total global burden of disease. In Europe alone, brain disease cost almost €800bn in 2010 – and a vast amount of unquantifiable suffering.

What are your current favorite neuroscience stories and why?

I’m a bit of a methods nerd and love to read about new ways of doing science. For example, Ed Boyden’s expansion microscopy (ExM) project is really interesting.

I’m also interested in any kind of standards or interoperability projects, like Neurodata Without Borders (nwb.org), a collaboration between INCF, Kavli Institute, HHMI, GE, and the Allen Brain Institute, to create a standard data format for neurophysiology.

How can we encourage people outside of neuroscience to become more interested in the subject?

I think it’s more important to: 1. encourage existing neuroscientists to talk to each other; and 2. to encourage funders to fund more neuroscience. We at INCF have some ideas of how to do 1, and hopefully this will catalyze 2. I’ll be able to tell you more about this in the next month or two! If you simply can’t wait to know more about INCF, email me at helena@incf.org.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Roll with the punches. And remember that you only have as much fun as you make for yourself.

What would your Plan B career be?

Silver smith. Nutrition and/or exercise scientist. Quantum physicist. Heavy metal singer. Chemistry teacher. Do I have to pick one? Too many interesting things to do! I settle for talking about these things on twitter – you can find me at @helena_lb.


See what else we’re doing in support of Brain Awareness Week here.

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