Clinton Cave, PhD

Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Middlebury College

What would you say to aspiring scientists? 
“Don’t just measure yourself by your field’s methods of professional credit. You are more than the sum of your grades, papers, or grants.”

As a young boy, Dr. Clinton Cave discovered his thirst for understanding basic scientific principles by poring over a picture book of high-magnification images of things that people might overlook: dragonfly wings, the ribs of a leaf, the structure of a fingernail. To him, even as a kid, there was beauty in understanding the fundamentals of how the natural world around us works. What really fascinated him was how different animals appeared and acted so differently. Clint also appreciated that for many natural phenomena, there was a concrete and satisfying answer for questions like why the sky is blue or why different clouds behave the way they do. This innate curiosity helped him to excel in his science classes in high school, including chemistry, biology and physics. His academic achievements and his curiosity about the natural world led him to attend Yale University.

Before he began his undergraduate degree at Yale, Clint had been more focused on learning in the classroom, and hadn’t yet gotten hands-on experience studying the basic science questions he was interested in. During an admitted students mixer before beginning his Freshman year, he met Dr. William Betz, who saw his passion and interest in natural sciences and invited him to work in his lab. This experience in the Betz Lab kick-started his lab science career, and gave him an excellent foundation in essential skills that have stuck with him until this day: microscopy, electrophysiology, and data organization. While at Yale, Clint explored the scientific curriculum, and found that he was more and more drawn to the field of neuroscience. “There’s an element of self-discovery in neuroscience,” he says. “How do we work, what makes us special?” Although there was no dedicated neuroscience major at Yale at the time, Clint became a psychology major in the behavioral neuroscience track, while also working in Dr. Flora Vaccarino’s lab at the Child Study Center. In the Vaccarino Lab, he investigated how a specific kind of brain cells called astroglia can generate many different neuron types in the developing mouse brain. This work set the stage for a lifelong interest in neurodevelopment, which he followed through his PhD and postdoc at Johns Hopkins, and guides his work as a principal investigator at Middlebury College to this day.

After graduating from Yale, Clint was not yet sure whether he wanted to pursue a career in medicine or in academia, but he knew that he wanted to keep doing research that contributes to our understanding of how brains develop. For a few years, he worked as a research technician at the University of Colorado, back with the Betz lab as well as Dr. Angie Ribera’s lab in the department of Physiology and Biophysics. He loved being a technician, and was particularly excited to help run a microscopy core facility, since it allowed him to participate in projects from all over the university, and to help solve interesting problems, like how to look at live neuron activity in an ant brain. He enjoyed the job so much that he was tempted to stay on as a technician, still undecided about whether to pursue his passion for basic or medical science. Another technician in the lab, Mr. Steve Fadul, pushed him forward, though, and helped him to decide to pursue a PhD. “There are so few people of color who rise through the academic career,” he says. “He knew that I should keep pushing forward, even when it’s not easy.”

There’s an element of self-discovery in neuroscienceHow do we work, what makes us special?

As a PhD student at Johns Hopkins, he followed his interest in neurodevelopment, deciding to join Dr. Shan Sockanathan’s research lab. It took a bit of trial and error to find a project that was right for him, starting off with a set of experiments in chicken embryos that, while valuable, kept producing negative results. It took at least three years into his PhD until he started collecting the data that would actually go into his thesis work. During those three years, he found himself comparing his progress to other students in the program, who may have been further along their own path than him at the time. This instinct that scientists can have for comparison in science career paths can be particularly distressing, he noted, which is difficult when each person’s science journey is totally different. The comparison that you want to make is whether you are better than you were yesterday,” he says. “Are you moving yourself into a better trajectory? Every experience you have has merit and it has value, even if it doesn’t directly translate into papers and grants.”

“The comparison that you want to make is whether you are better than you were yesterday.”

After working through projects that did not produce a cohesive scientific story, Clint and his mentor struck scientific gold while looking at one of the lab’s knockout mouse lines. They saw that a specific protein called GDE2 was crucial for generating spinal cord neurons that control motor movements. Not only that, but they also saw that even neurons that were able to be born did not survive as the animals aged, showing that the gene was not only required for generating motor neurons, but also for maintaining them. This finding generated a whole new wing in the Sockanathan lab, which Clint was instrumental in starting. This particular project was an interesting twist on classic clinical research, because the importance of GDE2 came out of a basic science finding, not from a population of human patients. In the personalized medicine age, generally, research flows in the opposite direction: first, you find mutations in a human study, and then you derive the basic science model. This novel approach made it harder to publish, so Clint chose to stay in the Sockanathan lab as a postdoctoral researcher after graduating to see the story until the end. He also knew that he wanted to propose to his then-girlfriend, who held a tenured status as a librarian, so he did not want to pull her away from that to pursue a postdoc in a new city.

Two years into his postdoc, he experienced a stroke of luck. His mentor sent him a job posting at Middlebury that described his experience and his interests exactly. “This is you. They’re just describing you,” she said, and strongly encouraged him to apply to the position, even though he hadn’t yet completed a traditional length post-doctoral fellowship and was uncertain if he wanted to stay in academia. “Some days, it might not have taken more than a gentle breeze to convince me to leave academia,” he says. But as he learned more about the position, the more he felt that it would be the right fit for him. Middlebury College, which is an undergraduate-only college in Vermont, was uniquely different from the larger research universities that Clint had become used to. “I knew that I loved teaching but was unfamiliar with the small, liberal arts college model.” He interviewed for the position and was offered the job. The rest is history, as he started his new lab at Middlebury in 2018, and has recently been named one of the Allen Institute’s Next Generation Leaders as recognition for his important contributions to neuroscience during this early stage in his career. “One of the things about a career in science is that it’s a little bit like doing science itself–you never quite know when things are going to lock into place, and you can’t quite predict when they will,” he says. “Because if you could, you wouldn’t have to do the experiment in the first place.”

As a mentor and a new research group leader, Clint has made it part of his mission to make sure his students feel as supported and prepared as possible when they graduate and pursue science careers of their own. One of the many benefits of the student-focused nature of these smaller schools is that students can actively go out and get mentorship and find advocates for themselves. As a black scientist, he has emphasized paying forward the advocacy he received as a young researcher, trying to cultivate the same feeling of belonging and welcoming into his own research group. He has seen many scientists of color place pressure on themselves to personally solve their systemic underrepresentation. “One of the worst pressures you can put on yourself is that it’s your responsibility to fix the problem,” he says. “You might think that your professional success is the only way to rectify these systemic imbalances, but that is such an unhealthy perspective.”

“One of the things about a career in science is that it’s a little bit like doing science itself–you never quite know when things are going to lock into place, and you can’t quite predict when they will.”

At Middlebury, he has been working hard to promote diversity not just in neuroscience, but in all STEM departments. As a faculty mentor for the Future Researchers Club at Middlebury, he is working to create a platform to share research experiences and to demystify the whole lab experience. He also believes that we need STEM engagement before college, because it may already be too late by then. Some students may have already decided that science is not a viable path for them, either because they don’t see themselves represented in STEM careers, or because they’ve never been able to see what research actually looks like day-to-day. What every young aspiring scientist deserves is the opportunity to find their spark, maybe in the intricacies of the dragonfly’s wing or the structure of the clouds in the sky.

Clinton Cave, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Middlebury College. Faculty profile

by Eliza Catharine Beach Jaeger

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