Keven Laboy-Juarez, PhD

Neuroscientist

“That whole process —  I think it’s one of the most important things of doing a PhD. You learn how easy it is to be wrong… It’s going through the failures that are absolutely important.”

“It’s not easy talking to non-neuroscientists and telling them you spent five years of your life studying mouse whiskers,” Dr. Keven Laboy-Juárez admits while reflecting on his Ph.D. experience. Although mouse whiskers are interesting in their own right, Keven’s Ph.D. research isn’t just relevant to those curious about the lives of these furry rodents. Mice use their extra-sensitive whiskers much like humans use sight or sound. And, like humans, mice use a part of their brain called the cortex to process this sensory information. Studying how the cortex processes information from whiskers in mice can help scientists understand how other animals perceive the world around them.   

Keven’s drive to uncover the mechanics of the systems around him began with a curiosity about objects far simpler than the human brain. As a child, he eagerly consumed episodes of How It’s Made on the Discovery Channel, marveling at the intricate processes behind the creation of products ranging from golf balls to guitar strings. His dad, an engineer at a pharmaceutical company, stoked his curiosity further by teaching him about the manufacturing processes in his own company. 

To me, neuroscience is one of those fields perfect for mixing mathematical modeling with the messiness, but importance, of biology.”

This excitement followed him to college at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. Although Keven originally had intentions of going to medical school, he soon fell in love with theoretical physics. He felt inspired by the ability to understand the world around him through mathematical relationships. It was working with a postdoctoral fellow in Professor Carlos Jiménez-Rivera’s lab that sealed his academic fate. Keven learned how a single neuron could be thought of as an electronics circuit in a simple, elegant way. He explains, “My passion became applying this elegance to something biology-related and the brain was just fascinating. To me, neuroscience is one of those fields perfect for mixing mathematical modeling with the messiness, but importance, of biology.”

For Keven, the draw of intellectual freedom in research led him to apply to Ph.D. programs in neuroscience. Although he was thrilled about joining the program at UC Berkeley, he describes the move from Puerto Rico as “one of the hardest, if not the hardest” experiences he’s had in science. “I lived in Puerto Rico for all my life, so I was nervous about traveling to different places and meeting people that were going to be very different from me,” Keven explained. At UC Berkeley, however, he found a supportive community with other graduate students and his mentor, Professor Dan Feldman.

It was with Dr. Feldman that Keven researched how mice use their whiskers to perceive touch. To do so, he measured the brain activity of many neurons in the brain cortex while a precise machine touched the mouse’s whiskers one-by-one. By creating a mathematical model of his data, he discovered possible building blocks the cortex uses to put together a full understanding of the surrounding environment through whisker touch. Just like how humans may “put together” pieces of a visual scene by putting together shapes and object motion, he found that mice may do something similar with their whiskers.He still recalls the thrill of this discovery: “It’s exciting when you’re working on something that hasn’t been solved before and you can publish it and show the world.”

“It’s exciting when you’re working on something that hasn’t been solved before and you can publish it and show the world.”

Despite his success, Keven is candid about the difficulties he faced along the way: “In science, you fail all the time: experiments don’t work, you get your grants rejected, your papers rejected, graduate school applications rejected.” 

“That whole process —  I think it’s one of the most important things of doing a PhD. You learn how easy it is to be wrong… It’s going through the failures that are absolutely important.”

A particularly trying incident early on in his Ph.D. stands out in his mind. He had found exciting preliminary results in his data and included them into a grant application that his mentor wrote. It was only two weeks before the application deadline that he discovered these promising results were created by a bug in his code. As a young scientist, he felt incredibly discouraged and embarrassed. It was through the support of his peers and mentor that he realized this single mistake didn’t define his worth as a scientist. In fact, Keven now sees these setbacks as a common and essential part of science. He believes these experiences are crucial to learning as a scientist:  “That whole process —  I think it’s one of the most important things of doing a PhD. You learn how easy it is to be wrong… It’s going through the failures that are absolutely important.”

Keven also struggled with more personal difficulties as he progressed through his career. At times, people would imply his achievements of entering his PhD program and receiving grants were a result of his minority status as opposed to his ability. He recalls situations where colleagues would suggest he wasn’t knowledgeable about neuroscience or outright laugh at questions he asked.

He explains why these encounters with implicit bias were so striking: “Coming from Puerto Rico, it was a completely different world… [These experiences were] never as obvious as when I first came to the States.” To fight against these biases, he took on extra work when possible and felt pressured to act more confident. Keven likens these challenges to extra requirements that are unfairly imposed on underrepresented scientists in order for them to succeed in their career. 

Although he acknowledges that the struggle has made him a stronger scientist, these experiences are still bitter memories for him. For Keven, it was a long, hard-won battle to finally feel secure in his position in science. His advice for other aspiring scientists? “Given how hard it is, make sure you pay attention to your personal needs.” He emphasizes how important it is to love the work that you do. Finding support and happiness outside of the lab is essential to maintaining excitement in the lab, especially during periods of hardship.

“Given how hard it is, make sure you pay attention to your personal needs.”


Keven is now a postdoctoral researcher in the Ölveckzy lab at Harvard University. He studies the distinct roles played by different brain regions in rats as they learn new movement patterns. Nearly a decade into his journey through science, Keven is still driven by the same fascination that glued him to the Discovery Channel as a young child. His passion for discovery and science has remained firm despite the difficulties he’s faced and despite how often research raises more questions than answers: “Intellectual creativity is so important to research, and once I realized that, I just completely fell in love with it and haven’t questioned it since.”


by Ching Fang

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