As a college freshman in 1995, Michael Tri H. Do listened as one of his instructors posed the question, "What is a signal?" Joseph Neale, professor of biology at Georgetown University, encouraged his class to consider the smoke signal. A single column of smoke rising does not carry a message, he suggested, but wave a blanket back and forth over a fire and the resulting pattern of smoke speaks volumes. For instance, Do explains, it could mean "Do not proceed" or "Prepare to react."
This is communication at its most fundamental level. But for Do, an HHMI predoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School, smoke signals and the activity of neurons in the brain—his area of research—have a great deal in common. Both are carriers of important messages.
Do's research focuses on the activity of the neurons in a brain structure called the subthalamic nucleus. Typically, external signals activate neurons. Oddly, even in the absence of external stimulation, the neurons in the subthalamic nucleus are still active. "How is it that you can have one cell sitting all by itself that continues to have rhythmic activity?" Do ponders. Since the subthalamic nucleus is a target for intervention in Parkinson's disease, his research may shed light on the nature of this neurodegenerative disorder.
Do's inquisitiveness goes way back. "From a very early age, my parents urged me to ask a lot of questions," says the 24-year-old, who grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. When he wasn't at the library looking for answers, Do was playing in the creek at Great Seneca State Park, walking distance from his house. Snakes, salamanders, and water striders all captured his attention. For instance, he found it fascinating that some insects could glide across the water's surface on their long legs. "It was one of the many questions I had: How can the water strider do that?"
When he enrolled at Georgetown, his interests were diverse. He never intended to fall in love with theology, but after taking two required courses, he was hooked. Do graduated with majors in both world religions and biology and won the prestigious Brennan Medal, awarded to the graduating senior who has "demonstrated the highest proficiency in theology or religious studies."
Another interest—painting—also took off in college. His work was showcased in two exhibitions in Washington, D.C. A selection of his paintings complemented Asians in the Americas, a series of dance performances at Dance Place, and his art was featured at the It's Your Mug Gallery.
Today Do continues to try to balance his interests. One night a week, he joins a group from the Harvard medical community that meets for a two-hour figure drawing session. "It's different from anything else I do," he says.
He also enjoys participating in Ask a Scientist because, he says, it is important to know how to take concepts "that can seem at times esoteric and communicate them to the general public." With the pressure in science today to specialize, Ask a Scientist provides an opportunity to "keep in touch with things outside my main focus," Do says, "and to share my enthusiasm about my own work, should a hapless questioner wander in that direction."