As part of the “rapid response” team for the hit TV show Fringe, neurobiologist Ricardo Gil da Costa is “on call” to answer questions for the science-curious Fringe writers. Not an easy task when you’re also researching neuroscience and biology in your laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies – but Ricardo pulls it off with ease. Since joining The Exchange as a science consultant in 2008, he’s consulted on Fringe, as well as a number of film and TV projects to be announced. We caught up with Ricardo to ask him a few questions on what inspires him, his work on Fringe, and his current research/projects – and yes, that 2012 project he mentions is BIG.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a scientist?
I’ve always wanted to be an “explorer” and had an absolute fascination for the ocean. So, growing up in Portugal with a fantastic coastline and a long tradition of nautical discoveries, becoming a marine biologist was the ideal dream job. I started scuba diving when I was a kid, got a degree in Biology and a master’s degree in Marine Biology, which allowed me to pursue my dream conducting field work around the world. I was involved in multiple research projects from ecological monitoring to shark biology and behavior. Part of my field research was carried out in several African countries, which exposed me to a whole new “wild frontier” and made me become increasingly more interested in evolution, as well as in the relation between brain and behavior. This led me to a Ph.D. in Cognitive Neurosciences, bridging behavioral field studies in Central America and the Caribbean, with the underlying brain mechanisms studied in the laboratory. Altogether, these experiences ultimately drove me to the integrative brain research I did at the National Institutes of Health and do today at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.
Were there any films or television shows that sparked your interest in science?
Sure! Jacques Cousteau’s TV series was an amazing window into a world I really wanted to be part of, so a great influence! The National Geographic shows covering amazing explorers around the world and across disciplines was another one. As well as a variety of movies from Jaws, to Jurassic Park, Blade Runner, Contact, A Beautiful Mind, etc. Still today, films and TV shows spark or re-ignite my interest in different science topics all the time.
How did you become a science advisor for The Science & Entertainment Exchange (The Exchange)?
I actually found the announcement of an event launching The Exchange in the scientific journal Science and searched the web for additional information. This was early December 2008, The Exchange had literally just opened and there wasn’t much online. So, I decided to take a chance and e-mail my background and CV to Jennifer Ouellette, asking her for more information and stating my interest in collaborating. Within 3 hours I got an e-mail from her, followed by a phone call, and it all started. It was funny because they were still getting furniture, setting up the office, etc., so we were supposed to talk again in a month. Instead, a week later I was already getting the first request for a consult.
How did you help the writers on Fringe? What science topics did you advise them on?
The Exchange set up a group of science consultants with different specialties for Fringe, I provided advice on neuroscience issues. The format and exact nature of science consults varies quite a bit depending on the requests I get. For Fringe, I usually receive either specific questions or topics they would like to develop in an episode and I try to provide suggestions that have a scientifically solid background but that, at the same time, will serve the purpose of the storyline in question. In sum, give them a scientific basis from which they can go wild!
What is the common ground between entertainment and science?
Interestingly, so many things! But if I had to pick a main one, it would be creativity! Creativity and team work, with an intrinsic curiosity associated with professional risk in every project.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
Work together and it will be quite a ride!
Scientists, filmmaking, in addition to great entertainment and (many times) inspiration, can be an amazing platform for the dissemination of science in an engaging and informal way that reaches millions. Getting involved is a fantastic opportunity to help promote it and to shape society’s science understanding, and from my personal experience, a lot of fun!
Filmmakers, scientists can actually be an added creative force in filmmaking, more than just some kind of “referees of right and wrong” or “creativity blocking elements.” When included in the process, scientists can be a very interesting collaborative addition for sustained creativity.
Any final thoughts you’d like to add? Anything you can share about your current projects?
Yes, it would be great to have the entertainment community helping us demystifying and changing the stereotypical “scientist” image as a reclusive, old, intelligent but socially awkward person – thinking less of scientists as “laboratory hermits” and more as explorers. From the quintessential fifteenth-century navigators or seventeenth-century naturalists to the twenty-first century scientists, scientific research is dynamic and exciting, is about discovery and exploration, being it underwater, in space, in the jungle, within a single cell or inside our brain!
Currently, my research is focused on the correlation between brain and behavior. More precisely, I am studying the evolution and neural basis of conceptual representations (i.e., how do we create, store, and relate mental representations of the multiple objects and events we encounter in our lives) and the evolution of language. For this purpose, besides behavioral studies, we develop and use novel brain imaging tools to investigate brain activity patterns in both human and other primate species while they are performing various visual and auditory tasks. The knowledge gained from these investigations helps us pinpoint the neural architecture associated with assigning meaning to auditory and visual stimuli, and subsequently create and improve therapies for human pathologies in which these sytems are disordered – e.g., Alzheimer’s disease and other dementing disorders, language disorders, etc.
As far as science entertainment consulting, I’m currently collaborating on a couple projects – very exciting different things. Unfortunately, at this moment I can’t say much about it, but the main one scheduled to come out next year is … BIG!
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Photo credit (homepage and top image): Flickr/DaveFayram