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Down memory lane (28.10.05, 13:05)

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. With this proverb in mind, neuroscientist Francesca Sargolini from the Italian capital enjoys stumbling around on a pair of skis when in Trondheim.

WHERE AM I? – I have a bad spatial memory, so I get lost in town all the time, Francesca admits.
- I vaguely remember my aunt’s hair. When she was young she had very long, blond hair, something quite rare in my family, and I was very fascinated by it. I have this memory of something very bright approaching, and me trying to catch it.

Francesca Sargolini is describing a special moment in her 31-year-old life: her very first memory. Like you and me, she carries a basket full of both good and some not so good memories.

But unlike most of us, she is determined to figure out every step the brain takes as it travels down memory lane. That determination has taken her to one of NTNU’s internationally renowned Centres of Excellence.

Interpreting a rat’s tale
- What is your field of research?

- The main scientific goal of the Centre for the Biology of Memory (CBM) is to determine how the activity of neurons in specific brain regions gives rise to different memory operations, such as encoding, storage, consolidation and retrieval of information. By recording the activity of single nerve cells in freely moving rats, it is possible to investigate the connection between the specific subset of neurons that is active and what the animal is doing.

- Our research is mainly focused on the hippocampus and the neocortex. It has been known since the 1950s that the hippocampus plays a central role in memory formation in mammals. Recent work from our laboratory strongly indicates that the processing of memory begins upstream in the hippocampus, in a structure of the neocortex that is called the entorhinal cortex. I’m currently investigating how the cells of the different layers in the entorhinal cortex participate to this process.

- What led you to study the sciences?

- I’ve always been interested in animal behaviour; I was fascinated by the way that animals, and particularly mammals, interact with the world and with their fellow species. I grew up in a big city, and didn’t have the opportunity to observe animals in their natural environment, but I always spent my holidays on big farms in the countryside. So after high school, I studied in a biology department with the idea of becoming an ethologist. However, I gradually shifted my scientific interests toward the basic mechanisms involved in brain functioning, which are the processes that happen in the brain when we interact with the external world, when we learn something or remember something.


Francesca Sargolini was born in Rome in 1974. She completed her Master’s degree at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche in Rome in 1996, studying the involvement of different subcortical brain structures in learning and memory. The program included six months at l’Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, where she investigated the neuronal mechanisms that are involved in the consolidation and the re-activation of a memory trace. In 1999 she headed for Toulouse to join a PhD program in Neuroscience and Behaviour. Sargolini earned her doctorate in 2002, after three years at the Centre de Recherche sur la Cognition Animale (CRCA), having worked on a project in collaboration with the Psicobiologia laboratory in Rome. The project involved the study of a sub-cortical brain structure called the striatum, and its involvement in the encoding and consolidation of spatial and contextual information. After a post-doctoral position at the CRCA in Toulouse, she came to Trondheim in 2004.

Working at CBM
- What does your ordinary work day look like?

- I usually go to the lab around 09.00-09.30. Twice a week we have scientific meetings so we start a bit earlier. I spend most of the day doing experiments and analysing data, and usually in the afternoon I spend some time updating my bibliography and reading articles. Around 19.00 it is time to go home. But I don’t have a fixed schedule; it depends on the demands of the moment. Sometimes you need to press on with experiments and other times you need to sit and consider what you have done. And of course I take breaks for a coffee and a cigarette with my friends.

- What professional goals would you like to achieve? Can you achieve them at NTNU, or do you think you will have to go elsewhere to specialize further?

- As is true for all post-docs, my professional goal is to gain the expertise that will allow me to build my own research group somewhere. The Centre for the Biology of Memory is a very good place to do that, as everyone working at the centre is highly professional while at the same time they are very friendly, characteristics that I have found in everyone here, the directors, the other post-docs, students, and technicians. I will move on from Trondheim at some point, but this is for more personal reasons, because I can’t imagine myself living permanently so far north. Because my contract with NTNU ends in 2007, I’ll stay here for two more years. However, it is difficult to fix an exact date; that will depend on how the project is going. As for my future ambitions, I would like to get a position as a researcher somewhere in the south of Europe, maybe in Italy or in France.

- How is your experience as a researcher at CBM perceived on an international level in your specific discipline?

- The centre is very high level, considered among the best in the world in the field of neurophysiology and in vivo recordings. So I feel very lucky that I have had the opportunity to join the researchers there.

LOOKING AFTER OLD BAILEY: Long working hours don’t give room for a pet. But from time to time Francesca borrows Old Bailey, her neighbour`s dog.
International and informal environment
- Does NTNU have an environment that fosters internal and external co-operation? Are there, in your opinion, relevant networks and infrastructures that connect NTNU to research groups and institutions abroad?

- Our co-operation, particularly with other institution abroad, is very good. The centre is actively collaborating with several groups all over the world ─ in the United States, The Netherlands, Italy, the UK. All these collaborators are also part of the centre as visiting professors. This creates a very stimulating, international environment.

- You have a broad range of research experience from institutions of higher education throughout Europe. What is your opinion of the Norwegian educational system?

- One thing that is quite different in Norway, compared to both Italy and France, is the lack of formality. This is particularly evident in the relationships that students have with their professors.

Different places, different ways
- There are perhaps some differences between Norwegian culture and life in the South?

- Lots of differences! I lived in France before coming to Norway, but I didn’t have the feeling that I was living in a country that was all that different from Italy. Here, at work, I think the main difference relates to the general atmosphere, which is very calm and relaxed in Trondheim. I have never experienced the slightest conflict between anyone in the lab. And this characteristic is also reflected in the world outside of work.

My impression is that people in Norway, from the first time you meet, are extremely kind and friendly, but that they are also very reserved. It takes time to get to know them better. In Italy and France my experience is almost the opposite; people can be quite distant to start with, but after a short time they become very open and friendly. - Have you run into any language barriers at work or in the course of everyday life?

- Unfortunately, I don’t speak Norwegian, except for a few words and phrases. I have never felt this to be a barrier, though. In the lab we usually speak English since there are many foreigners here. Elsewhere in Trondheim, it’s quite rare to meet someone who can’t speak English. However, sometimes I try to say something in Norwegian, in the shops and cafes, but I must be really bad, because usually people smile at me and answer in English…

- What has surprised you the most about Trondheim during your stay here?

- I was very surprised that you could bike in the snow, and particularly that I was able to do it as well!

COSY: Francesca enjoys the cobblestone streets with wooden houses at Bakklandet.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow
- What do you like to do in your spare time?

- I have become very fond of the snow. I have never been in the mountains in the winter before. But now I have tried skiing for the first time here in Trondheim. I’m pretty bad, but it’s great fun anyway. I have a few friends who are as bad as me, so we usually go skiing together during the weekends.

- So you are getting a bit more comfortable with the weather?

- Well, I can only say that this summer it was real joy to experience the almost 40 degree temperatures in Rome.

- Maybe you could provide the more forgetful among our readers with an expert tip based on your research?

- I cannot give any advice on how to improve your memory, I’m afraid. If I had any I would have used them earlier! I have quite a good memory for facts and episodes, what is called episodic memory, but a very bad spatial memory. I always get lost in town – even in Trondheim!

- Is that possible? Well, before you return to the lab, tell us about your favourite episodic memory.

- One of my nicest memories is when I met a bear in the mountain in Italy. In the centre of Italy there’s a type of bear called orso marsicano, which is not aggressive at all. Anyway, it is quite scary when you are faced with one of them. In my case, he just stole my friend’s bag and ran away.

By Kenneth Stoltz

Next week: Vassilia Partali, Department of Chemistry