Postdoctoral research fellow Matt Gaidica (PhD: Neuroscience, 2019) has always enjoyed solving difficult technical challenges. Before coming to U-M, that interest led him to pursue an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering followed by about a year of working for Silicon Valley tech startups.
It was during this time that a spark of altruism led him to reconsider where his talents could be best applied. Although he was not sure exactly where he would end up, he knew from the beginning that he was interested in the human brain. “The brain is a fantastically complex circuit containing deep technical problems that could help people if solved, but I still wasn’t sure how I exactly fit in,” he recalls.
Resigning from Silicon Valley, Gaidica began researching for and writing his book Left: A History of the Hemispheres. “The process of researching and writing that book,” Gaidica reflects, “was how I forced myself to not only become a student but a teacher of neuroscience fundamentals.”
That research led Gaidica back to his home state of Michigan and to U-M, where he has focused on various ways that challenges are met by the brain—or, as Gaidica describes it, “where ‘performance’ comes from.” Now working with Ben Dantzer on a fellowship co-funded by NASA and the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), Gaidica’s current work explores how sleep (or lack thereof) affects performance under stress.
Before joining the Department of Psychology, however, Gaidica worked with Michigan Medicine neurologist Daniel Leventhal, who focuses primarily on the neurological bases for tremors, dyskinesias, and other Parkinsonian movement disorders. Gaidica found that work interesting, but he was most intrigued by the parallels he saw between those symptoms and the manners in which movements in healthy individuals break down under intense exertion or stress. He says, “If you look at someone summiting Everest or finishing a marathon, they move in pretty “funny” ways, and those effects share a physiological substrate with movements of people with neuromuscular diseases. My own thesis was about how some very specific brain circuits in the healthy brain generate fast or slow movements.”
During graduate school, Gaidica embarked on a memorable pilot project examining how human brains and bodies respond to high altitudes at the Annapurna Base Camp in north-central Nepal. That project helped confirm that his real passion is for the emerging world of field-based (rather than lab-based) neuroscience. Field neuroscience often requires researchers to develop new technologies and techniques, and they constantly face unanticipated challenges stemming from their uncontrolled work environments.
Gaidica feels he is often at his best when performing that kind of on-the-fly problem solving. “A good example of that happened during the Annapurna trek,” he explains. “On the first day, we connected our electroencephalogram (EEG), and it was inundated with noise—completely unusable. I thought, ‘this whole thing is broken. This isn’t going to work.’ But a quick Fourier analysis showed that the noise was all at 52 ½ hertz (Hz). The power in that part of the world starts at a 50 Hz frequency, but up there, it had slightly shifted to 52 ½ Hz. I didn’t have an out-of-the-box filter for that frequency, so I coded one and threw it into the processing pipeline, and it worked. It cleaned up our signal, but we also ended up doing most of our work outside of the camps and away from those uninsulated lines. We never would have predicted that challenge, but it is a testament to the importance of getting out there and trying.”
After receiving his PhD, Gaidica sought out ways to conduct more of that kind of research. He was ready to move almost anywhere in the world for the right opportunity, but he ended up finding it just down the hall, so to speak, in Ben Dantzer’s lab. “I wanted to find someone who was doing neuroscience ‘in the wild’,” he says. “As it happened, Ben was already right here doing very interesting work with animals, often in remote areas like the Yukon. Working on the NASA/TRISH project has been great. The project is based on recording neural activity from squirrels in their natural environment—basically combining Ben’s expertise and mine to solve these very challenging problems about how to perform neurophysiology on wild animals without disrupting their natural behaviors.”
Ultimately, understanding the relationships between sleep, stress, and performance in squirrels is a step toward understanding the same relationships in humans. That has important implications for many fields, including space exploration.
“Squirrels are interesting because they face many challenges throughout the year including limited food rations, predation, and ever-changing light availability,” Gaidica explains. “Some of how they deal with that is related to sleep because it is such a major physiological function. Squirrels are also interesting because in some ways they sleep as we do. They are diurnal mammals that go to bed at night and wake up in the morning. But we do not know a lot about what is going on with them in terms of sleep architecture—that is, how they transition between different stages of sleep throughout the night. From NASA’s perspective, we can think about how these data may help us understand the effects of sleep on astronauts, who are spinning around the earth every 90 minutes and exposed to many other interrelated stressors. The evidence strongly supports that getting ‘good’ sleep matters a lot for human performance, but what is good sleep, anyways? Understanding that may ultimately help us develop pharmacological or therapeutic interventions that help people in stressful environments.”
Speaking of stressful environments and lack of sleep, Gaidica is currently balancing his postdoctoral work with his role as both a new father and a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Although balancing his civilian and military work is challenging, Gaidica believes it is a cohesive approach to serve his community, understand problems of national interest, and as he puts it, “bake in the pursuit of excellence when leading diverse, purpose-driven teams.”
“I like the balance of being in the Reserve and having a civilian career,” he says. “They are both ‘my people.’ We have to remember that the military protects our way of life and, idealistically, our freedom. We also face a bit of a crisis as we realize that a four-year degree is not ideal for everyone, and a place like the Air Force is a great avenue for acquiring skills, discipline, a sense of community or purpose, and benefits for your future.”
Gaidica’s research on sleep, stress, and performance has obvious military applications as well, and he believes his time in the Air Force will help him communicate between both camps, so to speak: academic researchers, who are developing much of the fundamental knowledge, and military personnel, who may reap the practical benefits of it.
As of late 2022, Gaidica is actively pursuing faculty jobs in neuroscience or bioastronautics. “I know I want to end up somewhere with an intellectual campus,” he says. “That does not necessarily mean a university, but I truly enjoy teaching, collaborating, and having everything from expert veterinarians to state-of-the-art 3D printing studios right there next to me.”
Gaidica keeps his website updated with his latest projects and publications.