Sometimes good, even great, research goes unrewarded. There are thousands of researchers who don’t get the grants they deserve—it’s, unfortunately, just how the funding system works. This is not one of those stories.

Rather, this is a story of good researchers doing great things, and being handsomely rewarded for their efforts.

I’ve written it before, and I’ll write it again—open-access is an integral part of the future of scientific research and innovation. The more information scientists share with each other, the better off we are in the fight against, well, life.


Michelle Taylor

The science industry has traditionally been slow to adopt components of open-access (see “luxury journals”); but there are absolutely those paving the way. There’s University of Toronto researcher Rachel Harding who opened her lab notes to the research community in real-time, and there’s MIT-trained Lenny Teytelman, who created, an open-access, collaborative repository of science methods and protocols. (He did this after almost two years of his postdoctoral research were ruined due to an error in the published microscopy method he was using.)

And then there’s the UCLA-designed open-source mini microscope for brain research that has been adopted by more than 250 labs worldwide. Developed in late-2015, the researchers behind the project immediately made information about how to build and use the device free to other scientists via an open-access wiki. This feature of their recent grant proposal was key to securing an $8.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

See, great things do happen to good researchers.

When mounted on an animal’s head, the 1-inch-tall, 4-gram “miniscope” allows scientists to observe neurons firing, and even the creation of memories. The NSF’s five-year grant will allow the scientists to further refine their design to combine electrical and optical recordings, which will give them the ability to visualize how brain regions and large groups of brain cells work together as the brain senses, learns, plans and executes actions.

The miniscope project started in 2011 when creator Peyman Golshani, a UCLA neuroscientist, read about a miniaturized microscope developed at Stanford University that was light enough to be worn by lab mice. However, the commercialized version cost about $150,000, which did not work for Golshani. So, he set out to create a cheaper version that could be shared with other researchers.

The miniscope. Photo: Leigh Hopper/UCLA Health

With the help of UCLA neurologist Daniel Aharoni and other colleagues, Golshani only needed four months to create his own version, made mostly from off-the-shelf parts that cost $1,000 altogether. The scientists then posted the parts lists and instructions for building and using the device to its own wiki page.

Since then, the website has turned into a collaborative forum for researchers around the world. One researcher posted a note to say that a 2-gram model would be helpful for recording brain activity in songbirds, which prompted the UCLA team to produce a lighter version of the microscope. Another request from a scientist who studies bats had Golshani’s lab working on a battery-powered wireless version that saves data onto a micro SD card.

“Other research groups have taken our base model and added to it and are starting to publish papers based on what they’re discovering with it,” said Golshani, also the grant’s principal investigator. “It’s really taking off. We’ve given this to the community and the community is using it. If you build a tool and let a lot of people use it for their own research, the impact is much, much larger than if you keep it to yourself.”

The UCLA team themselves have used the miniscope to study the brain’s role in memory creation and retention. In mice, the team identified how the brain links different memories over time, and even devised a method for the middle-aged brain to reconnect memories that have since been separated. They have also used the miniscope to provide a better understanding of how neural circuits in the brain process, encode, store and retrieve information—a project that was part of the then-President Barack Obama’s NIH BRAIN Initiative.

But with this grant from the NSF, which began on Oct. 1, Golshani and his team intend to refine the design of the miniscope in order to collect even more information, such as calcium levels, electrophysiological data and real-time control over neural activity. This combination of electrical and optical recordings will give scientists the new ability to read out how large groups of brain cells and brain regions work together as the brain senses, learns, plans and executes actions. The grant will also enable the researchers to create a new miniature microscope that will allow investigators to make 3-D movies of brain activity, greatly improving their view of the large network of brain cells.

Like the older version, the new mini microscope will be shared via open-access channels—which is really the bedrock of the grant proposal.

The UCLA researchers plan to hold workshops to teach scientists how to build and use the microscope devices, and will also conduct classes for K-12 and college students. Golshani and his team also intend to establish an outreach program through partnership with the Minority Access to Research Careers program at UCLA, as well as the UCLA Center for Excellence in Engineering and Diversity, to involve highly diversified high school and undergraduate students in this research.

“Making these devices widely available for neuroscience research and teaching will have significant broader impacts by accelerating discovery and broadening outreach. The devices and techniques will be distributed widely to a large community of researchers,” the proposal reads. “Hence, [this project] will have a broad impact upon neuroscience research, facilitating many future advances in our understanding of the neural basis for emotion, cognition, and behavior, with a high potential to catalyze major new discoveries.”