Sleep Science Friday: Navigating academia and novel scientific discoveries: Isabela Santos Valentim with Dr. Vladyslav Vyazovskiy

Sleep Science Friday

It’s the end of another week—grab a coffee/tea/beer/wine and end your week with a quick recap of Sleep Science News! This is the last SSF we have planned for 2020. We hope you have enjoyed this feature and look forward to continuing it in 2021.

Navigating academia and novel scientific discoveries: Isabela Santos Valentim with Dr. Vladyslav Vyazovskiy

18 December 2020

Thank you for joining us for another Sleep Science Friday. If you’re an early career researcher (or even a PI)—this week’s Ask a Sleep Scientist is a must listen as Isabela Santos Valentim, a PhD Candidate at the Leibniz Graduate School on Aging (Jena, Germany) and member of the ESRS Communication and Digital Committee, interviews Dr. Vladyslav Vyazovskiy.

Dr. Vyazovskiy is an Associate Professor of neuroscience at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute in Oxford University, the PI of the Sleep, Brain, and Behavior Laboratory, and a member of the ESRS Scientific Committee. He did his PhD at the University of Zurich and postdoc at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on understanding the spatio-temporal dynamics of brain activity during sleep to uncover not only what sleep is, but also why this phenomenon is so important. He is the recipient of many important grants, such as the Medical Research Council, Novo-Nordisk, Marie Curie, and Royal Society.

Listen in as Dr. Vyazovskiy shares his scientific journey and provides advice on building resilience, forming collaborations, and keeping your imagination alive when designing and analyzing your experiments. He discusses taking your time to deeply look at the data when interpreting and understanding your results.

0:00-1:05 Introduction of Dr. Vladyslav Vyazovskiy


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Sleep Science Friday: Isabela Santos Valentim with Dr. Vladyslav Vyazovskiy from European Sleep Research Society on Vimeo.

1:06-8:40 Motivations for moving abroad and early career experiences

Scientists are used to uprooting and moving for the next position. Dr. Vyazovskiy is no stranger to this, with several major transitions throughout his career: originally from Ukraine, he moved to Zurich for his PhD; then to the USA for his postdoc; next to Surrey, UK as a lecturer; and finally to Oxford, where he now has his own laboratory and team of students and post-docs. Dr. Vyazovskiy shares his motivations and experiences as an early career researcher for those who are thinking about taking a similar leap. He also encourages PIs to take messages from young students abroad seriously and to encourage them on their scientific journey as this can make the difference in their career path.

“When you move between cities, and especially countries, it is a major challenge, but I think it is very stimulating…I definitely recommend students to explore the world—so to explore the opportunities, explore the challenges—because this is how you grow, how you become resilient, how you network and make new friends, colleagues and collaborators. So, it’s a very important experience.”

8:41-16:23 Postdoc experience in the Center for Sleep and Consciousness at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Transitioning from a PhD to postdoc came with several challenges—primarily learning to be more independent and setting up your own projects. Dr. Vyazovskiy talks about his experiences in the lab of Professors Chiara Cirelli and Guillio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, including learning to drive in the cold Wisconsin winter, troubleshooting equipment, and growing in an intellectually challenging and rich environment.

16:24-22:49 Local sleep in awake rats: first publication in Nature

 Constantin von Economo postulated the idea that sleep is regulated by subcortical structures between the hypothalamus, basal forebrain, and brainstem, which orchestrates the switching mechanisms between being sleep and awake (for more history, see Lavie, 1993). Later, with findings from Drs James M. Krueger and Ferenc Obál Jr. (Krueger et al., 1995; Krueger, Obál and Fang, 1999; Kruger et al., 2019), it was shown that sleep could happen locally once certain neurons began to accumulate sleep need at a local level, with this potentially triggering the sleep process.

Building from this, Dr. Vyazovskiy observed that sleep intensity is not a global measure of sleep need, but could also be expressed at the local level—a discovery made after analyzing the somatosensory cortex activity of rats. Then, in Wisconsin-Madison, they further pursued this idea after establishing the technique of continuously monitoring neuronal activity—making it possible to record the spiking of single neurons.

Dr. Vyazovskiy shares the remarkable experience of being able to observe with the naked eye when an animal was awake, moving, in briefly “off-states” and slow waves—and that this process was entirely localized! It took a few years to develop the paper, which was later accepted and published in Nature (Vyazovskiy et al., 2011). Originally, a short letter, Nature even requested that they develop it into a full paper. The important implications of the paper showed that the idea of local sleep may explain why we feel tired and sleepy, and changed the way we see sleep. When first interpreting his results, he advises that we should avoid taking short cuts and to first really look at the data before performing any analyses as the best way to understand it.

22:50-26:07 Neuronal spiking and elegant methods

Conventional sleep research is performed with an EEG in rats and mice and is not easy to interpret. While you can extract useful information, it is difficult to determine the exact origin of certain waveforms. Therefore, they wanted to get closer to the real activity: what are the neurons doing during sleep? Although it was a challenge to set up the technique, Dr. Vyazovskiy worked with several collaborators to make it possible.

 “There were a lot of practical challenges we had to face, but I remember when I planted my electrodes and I saw my first neurons spiking and I had a remote connection from my home. So, I would even wake up in the middle of the night and I would go turn on the computer and look at the neurons—are they still there?”

 Nowadays, he still uses this technique in his lab in Oxford and mentions that his students and postdocs have improved this approach by combining with histology techniques.

26:08-31:05 How to navigate from postdoc to Associate Professor

 Dr. Vyazovskiy shares his advice on how to navigate the path from postdoc to associate professor.

“I feel I’m very lucky that I had good mentors and supervisors who were always, and still are, very supportive.”

Choosing the correct mentors and supervisors who will support you in navigating this path is key—particularly when moving countries. There are no courses to become a PI and you need to decide at some point that you are ready to be independent. Dr. Vyazovskiy warns the process is not always smooth, you will need to develop a lot of new skills and that being able to count on previous mentors for support and advice will help in this transition. He recommends students to start building their network early on—by going to conferences and talking with as many people as possible who may be your future collaborators.

31:06-33:52 Time management as a PI

 Academia is a constant learning process and being in an environment that has good infrastructure to help drive projects forward is important. He adds that time management and juggling priorities is a skill you will learn to develop over time.

33:53-43:01 Relationship between sleep, circadian rhythms, neurodegenerative diseases and the importance of choosing an experimental model

 Oxford is a great environment to work closely with circadian rhythms experts (such as Drs Russell Foster, Stuart Peirson, Aarti Jagannath and others). He highlights how important it is for sleep scientists to talk with circadian biologists and vice-versa, because this is one of the best ways to broaden our horizons. Sleep is a very complex phenomenon, and to Dr. Vyazovskiy, it was always difficult to focus on one aspect of sleep research—observing that this is perhaps his main challenge: how to select one point to focus on. He explains the different directions that are currently being done in his lab – with sleep and metabolism; sleep and circadian rhythms; cortical versus subcortical sleep control; and the connection between sleep and cellular stress as a possible link between sleep and neurodegenerative disorders.

Alzheimer’s disease is associated with proteostasis dysfunction, which suggests that wakefulness and sleep deprivation are associated with the accumulation of endoplasmic reticulum stress. He emphasizes that we need to be open-minded, skeptical, and critical when trying to disentangle the causality between sleep and neurodegenerative disorders. A nice example is the connection between REM behavior disorder (RBD) and Parkinson’s disease (PD) where it is well established that if you develop RBD, it is very likely that you will develop PD (Barone and Henchcliffe, 2018; Lin and Chen, 2018). Regarding Alzheimer’s disease and sleep, more work needs to be done before stating that there is a definitive causal relationship.

“Malfunction of circadian clock may contribute to age-related alterations in sleep, which may indeed predispose the individual to the development of neurodegenerative disorders. But then we need to understand a bit better why circadian rhythms weaken with age.”

 To understand this better we have to consider our experimental models. In Alzheimer’s disease most work is done in mice that sleep more with age, which is opposite of what is typical for humans (so we need to be critical!). We also should be aware of differences when studying sleep in a natural versus laboratory setting. Sleep and the environment are intrinsically connected—all the genes that were selected for, artificial food and light, the lack of predators, etc.—might influence the sleep behavior of laboratory mice. While in nature, animals must juggle sleep need with external and internal drives. He emphasizes that we need to look at sleep beyond laboratory studies and into the wild (Tobler, 2005; Rattenborg et al., 2017; Anafi, Kayser and Raizen, 2019).

43:02-49:32 Environment, art, and science in (sleep) research

The Sleeping Gypsy (La Bohémienne endormie), Henri Rousseau, 1897. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In 2014, Dr. Vladyslav Vyazovskiy and Dr. Russell Foster made a comment in Current Biology addressing the question of whether the moon could affect our sleep by looking at previously published studies (Vyazovskiy and Foster, 2014). These studies showed inconsistent and controversial results that created even more questions. The lunar effects on sleep represents a relationship that has to be looked at carefully with very-well defined approaches to better understand this “naturalistic” approach on how the environment might play a role in our sleep behavior.

With this idea, Henri Rousseau’s painting, the Sleeping Gypsy, depicts this relationship between sleep and the environment. In this painting, we observe a woman sleeping peacefully under the moonlight without realizing a lion is approaching and is in imminent danger. Shared on his laboratory website, Dr. Vyazovskiy emphasizes that sleep is about an organism’s relationship with its environment.

Linking between science and art, he explains that art can stimulate ideas as art is about the imagination. Although science is based on the objective measurement of a phenomena and art is subjective, there is a point where both can come together. For example, we cannot read the painter’s mind. This is our interpretation, which depends on our own history and knowledge. This relates to how we deal with scientific data, which needs to be put into context and interpreted—and that imagination precedes knowledge. Depending on your experience and knowledge, you may interpret data completely differently. Science and art converge upon our subjective view of the topic and what we make of the painting—or the data.

49:33-52:58 Dr. Vyazovskiy shares his dream experiment

If given the opportunity to perform any research project, Dr. Vyazovskiy would like to return to his love of animals and observe how they sleep in the wild under natural conditions by looking at the entire ecosystem. This would give a remarkable opportunity to understand sleep across different species in a bigger picture and to fully understand how an individual or species sleeps within the context of its environment. Living in such complex landscapes (and “sleepscapes”), animals must coordinate their sleeping activity with other animals and among conspecifics. We still do not have the methodology and the perfect approach, but this would provide very important and fundamental answers.

52:59-56:24 Final advice for PhD students crossing the finishing line

 This is an important milestone, says Dr. Vyazovskiy. He advises students not to be shy or scared to take a decision. That it is always possible to realize a decision or environment may not be for you and to still make the most of it before moving on. Dr. Vyazovskiy also reminds students that there is nothing wrong with leaving academia and that academia is not for everyone. He explains that leaving academia may sometimes be perceived as a failure—but this is wrong—and that leaving academia does not mean you have failed as a scientist. He recommends to always think into the future and to remember planning, time management, and building your network.


Thank you again Dr. Vyazovskiy for sharing your experiences as an early career researcher and discussing your exciting scientific journey!

We hope you enjoyed listening in as much as we enjoyed talking with Dr. Vyazovskiy. Have a great weekend everyone!


For further reading and recent publications:

  •  McKillop and Vyazovskiy (2020). Sleep and ageing: from human studies to rodent models. Curr Opin Phys.
  • Northeast, Vyazovskiy and Bechthold (2020). Eat, sleep, repeat: the role of circadian system in balancing sleep-wake control with metabolic need. Curr Opin Phys.
  • Krueger et al. (2019). Local sleep. Sleep Med Rev.
  • Anafi, Kayser and Raizen (2018). Exploring phylogeny to find the function of sleep. Rev. Neurosc.
  • Barone and Henchcliffe (2018). Rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder and the link to alpha-synucleinopathies. Clin Neurophysiol.
  • Hasan et al. (2018). Effects of circadian misalignment on sleep in mice. Sci Rep.
  • Lin and Chen (2018). RBD: a red flag for cognitive impairment in Parkinson’s disease? Sleep Med.
  • McKillop et al. (2018). Effects of aging on cortical neural dynamics and local sleep homeostasis in mice. J of Neurosc.
  • Rattenborg et al. (2017). Sleep research goes wild: new methods and approaches to investigate the ecology, evolution and functions of sleep. Trans. R. Soc. B.
  • Vyazovskiy (2015). Mapping the birth of the sleep connectome.
  • Vyazovskiy and Foster (2014). Sleep: a biological stimulus from our nearest celestial neighbor? Curr Biol.
  • Vyazovskiy et al. (2011). Local sleep in awake rats.
  • Leemburg, Vyazovskiy et al. (2010). Sleep homeostasis in the rat is preserved during chronic sleep restriction.
  • Tobler (2005). Chapter: Phylogeny of sleep regulation In book: Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine.
  • Krueger, Obál and Fang (1999). Why we sleep: a theoretical view of sleep function. Sleep Med Rev.
  • Krueger et al. (1995). Brain organization and sleep function. Behav Brain Res.
  • Lavie (1993). The sleep theory of Constantin von Economo. J Sleep Res.


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