Dr. Baohua Liu recently joined the UTM faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Biology. The Medium sat down with him to talk about one of the largest decisions of his life and his research on the brain.
Liu’s journey in academic research started when he was a fourth-year undergraduate student completing a work-study in a physics lab at Nankai University in China. After completing his Bachelor’s degree in physics, Liu enrolled in a graduate physics program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Liu’s wife soon joined him in the United States; however, she was studying in California which was about three thousand kilometers away from Liu in Wisconsin. Liu, who considers family “as the most important thing,” therefore decided to transfer to the University of Southern California and “made the biggest change in [his] life” which was to study neuroscience instead of physics. Fortunately for Liu, “neuroscience turned out to be a very interesting topic because it consists of the most important organ in our body, the brain.”
After completing his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, Liu was offered the opportunity to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Diego following which he joined the UTM faculty.
Liu studies the neocortex which is a component of the mammalian brain involved in higher order brain functions. As a graduate student, he “was mainly focused on how visual cortical neurons take in [and synthesize] information” following which he “started [to think about] what the next important question” would be. Liu says that while there are many studies on how the visual cortex processes information, “we barely know how the information is used.”
As Liu explains, the sensory information received by the visual cortical neurons “is not directly used by the visual cortex. Instead, the information [is] rout[ed] to higher cortical areas or down to the brainstem where the sensory information was converted into motor commands which guide our actions.”
Liu wants to examine “how the visual cortex modulates the behaviour mediated by the brainstem.” Another important avenue of his research focuses on how the neocortex is only found in mammals and how mammals have “a much higher level of plasticity than other animals, especially invertebrates.” Liu says that “we can make a bold hypothesis that plasticity behaviour comes from the neocortex” which leads to the question of how the neocortex contributes to the plasticity of a mammal.
Liu chose to focus on reflex behaviour and specifically, “the visual cortex, how information is processed and integrated at the level of the brainstem, how this information is converted into motor commands, and [ultimately, how] it influence[s] the execution of behaviour.”
Liu expands on reflex behaviour: “When we turn our head or when we walk, the eye moves in the opposite direction of the head [which ensures]that the absolute location of the eye is kept relatively stable [and] that you can see a sharp image.”
Liu says that “studying how the cortex contributes to this reflexive behaviour will facilitate our understanding of the visual system as a whole, [including] how motor actions interact with the sensory information processing [and] how they work together to help us perceive the visual world.”
In terms of the clinical aspect, “there are several diseases caused by the malfunctioning of inner reflexive behaviour.” Understanding the mechanisms behind reflexive behaviours can provide insight into how to formulate more effective treatments.
Liu attributes his inspiration to pursue academia to his curious nature. As a kid, he used to wonder “why butterflies [were] colourful [and] why the sky looks blue.” He studied physics as he believes “physics is the basis of everything,” and is now excited to be researching and teaching biology which, according to him, contains “many things for [him] to explore.”