Campus professor emeritus to receive half-million dollars for pioneering neuroscience research

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Mu-ming Poo, a campus neurobiology professor emeritus renowned for creatively exploring the effect of life experiences on the brain, will receive this year’s esteemed Gruber Neuroscience Prize along with a $500,000 cash award.  

Poo will receive the prize — which was announced Tuesday by Yale University and the Gruber Foundation — in November at the 46th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, according to a campus press release. The honor has been given annually since 2004 and recognizes scientists whose work engenders shifts in conventional knowledge.

“I’m completely honored,” Poo said. “I’m very happy that my work is recognized by the field.”

According to campus neurobiology professor Daniel Feldman, Poo laid the conceptual groundwork for ongoing experiments in hundreds of laboratories, in particular those labs aiming to eradicate disease. He commented that knowledge about neural circuitry — required to grasp complex brain processes such as memory and awareness — was sparse before Poo’s experimentation.

Feldman also praised the professor as “an extremely effective and visionary leader” for his role as the founding director of the Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shanghai in 1999.

Poo advanced understanding of how neurons in the developing brain seek each other out to form unique synapses, or junctions between neurons, according to Feldman. He added that Poo made important discoveries related to synaptic plasticity, the way synapses strengthen or weaken over time depending on usage, one of which Poo considers “his most important contribution.”   

Campus neurobiology professor Marla Feller — who met Poo at a summer class he was teaching in 1992 — said the professor was an “extremely energetic” and supportive colleague. She noted his tendency to devise creative experimental designs, often undeterred by technological limits.

“Having a discussion with him, you’re often finding yourself saying, ‘Wow, I haven’t thought of that as a possible way this could work,’” said Feller, adding that Poo could describe “lofty ideas” about cognitive function on a cellular level.

Poo became interested in biology after reading Watson and Cricks’ foundational paper on the double-helix shape of DNA. The professor married his newfound excitement about the field with his background in physics to produce groundbreaking work.

Poo said that many interesting implications of his research were realized at UC Berkeley, describing his years on campus as “a consolidating period” for his research.

According to Poo, approaching experimental problems randomly and moving on to others shortly thereafter — rather than devoting his entire career to solving a singular problem — has generated much of his success.

Poo said he will donate part of his award to promoting daring research by young scientists, emphasizing that “risky, novel ideas will be sources of innovation.”

Contact Kimberly Nielsen at [email protected].