The EPNA 2022 goes to Dr. Damien Huzard from the Inserm, IGF, Université de Montpellier, France for his paper: ‘The impact of C-tactile low-threshold mechanoreceptors on affective touch and social interactions in mice’, Science Advances, 2021, Vol 8, Issue 26.

The award emphasizes the importance of research into brain function and its diseases and is designed as a form of support and encouragement for early-career researchers at the early stage of their career and will be awarded at the NEURON Midterm Meeting January 2023 in Madrid.

Personal Interview of Dr. Damien Huzard, EPNA awardee 2022

The Excellent Paper in Neuroscience Award (EPNA) initiative was first introduced by NEURON in 2009, in order to support and encourage young neuroscientists at the early stage of their career. The winners of the award receive a cash prize, as well as an invitation to present their work as special Young Investigators speakers in an international conference. This year the presentation and award took place in the ERA-Net NEURON Midterm Symposium in January 2023 in Madrid.
The 2022 EPNA awardee is Damien Huzard (@Dhuzard). The award was given to Dr. Huzard for his publication from his work in the Inserm, IGF, Université de Montpellier, France (see link above).

Please tell us briefly about your research interests.

My research interests are pretty wide, but overall, I am interested in understanding the concepts of Adaptation and Coping strategies, in terms of behavior. How organisms react to their environment. How the brain (and the sensory systems) integrates its context in order to produce a response. How this works in normal conditions and how this might be altered in some pathological or maladaptive situations?
Currently, I am focusing my research on the somatosensory system of a mouse model of autism and its effect on the development of social behaviors.

Please tell us about your scientific journey to-date.

I started my scientific journey pretty early since I was lucky enough to have my own research project during an internship in Concordia university, during which I analyzed the beneficial influence of enriched environments on stressed rats. Then, I did my PhD in the great lab of Carmen Sandi, at EPFL, in Switzerland. During 4 years, I studied the effects of stress adaptation on various behavioral and physiological parameters of rats. After that, I moved to France for a first postdoc, studying the social fear of mice models of autism as well as implementing an automated home-cage monitoring. Finally, I started a second postdoc in the lab I am currently working, in which I can use my behavioral expertise and apply it on an amazing question: how is affective touch regulating the maturation of sociability?

What made you choose a career in your field?

I was always passionate about human reactions and behaviors, and quite early I wanted to study ‘the brain’. I discovered the world of behavioralism during my bachelor/master studies at EPFL, and I could not think about doing something different.

Where do you see your field of research in a few years? What are going to be the major breakthroughs?

Concerning behavioral neurosciences, I imagine it “less-centrally-focused”: I think that we have to integrate the peripheral system into the equation in order to properly understand how organisms adapt. It is not a new idea, but, in a few years, I hope it will sound obvious.
A major breakthrough in behavioral research might come from the generalization of systems that allow to study behaviors in more and more ecological setups, monitoring various parameters and allowing smarter experimental designs, better reproducibility and improved data usage.

What were the main challenges you had overcome in your career path and how did you overcome them?

I cannot think about a particular event that was especially hard. However, research-life is challenging everyday, but that’s why I am doing it, I like challenges!
A real challenge, nowadays in France (and probably in a lot of countries), is the uncertainty of the job and the precarity of postdoc life. I never know where or what I will do in 2 years’ time, and this become unpleasant when you want to start a family and when you reach your mid-thirties…But this is the situation in science in 2023, let’s hope it will be better in few years.

What are your goals for the future and where would you like to see yourself 5 years from now?

Unfortunately, I realistically cannot build dreams or hope for my research in 5 years… I know that I’ll apply for French CNRS and INSERM permanent research positions. In case this works fine, I can picture myself working here in Montpellier and investigating the somatosensory system of mice and its implication on social behaviors. Otherwise, my goal will be to use the knowledge and skills I build so far and apply it somehow for scientific research, if that be in academia or industry.

What advice would you give your younger self or young scientists beginning their research career?

I would have told my younger self to think ahead as early as possible and to plan the next move earlier. It becomes truly important to be strategic in addition to the passion, which, I think, is the key to a fulfilled scientist. Be curious and open-minded, do not impose yourself constraints since you could forbit yourself the access to the solution. Good luck, but most importantly, enjoy the journey!