Jan-Marino (Nino) Ramirez was never supposed to be a scientist. His father said he was destined to become a pianist or a painter. The father, Antonio Maro, is a celebrated Peruvian-born European painter, famous for wild abstract work with a barely hidden sexuality. Maro taught his three sons to place the creation of beauty above all other things, and Nino’s brothers did just that: Alexander-Sergei is a popular classical guitarist and Rafael still lives with their father, painting by his side every day.
Nino became a scientist who studies how the brains of mice control their breathing.
Nino’s father said this work was boring. He said Nino had none of the passion and imagination of his brothers and his father. He said he was ashamed of his son.
But these days, Maro knows he was wrong. Far from passionless, Nino loves the intricate elegance of the brain and has spent his life enthralled by it. And his “boring” work has exciting potential for treating cancer, AIDS and other diseases, even curing sudden infant death syndrome.
Indeed, Nino is very much like his father. He has given up money and professional security. He has alienated colleagues and friends. He has spent a great deal of time away from his wife and children. He has done all this just to uncover a few of the beautiful secrets that lie hidden in the brain.
Nino Ramirez is an assistant professor of biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago. He lives in Evanston with his wife, Erika, and their six children. His laboratory is tucked away in an ornate, gray, neo-classical building on the Hyde Park campus. Ramirez is 40. He is beginning to bald. He wears a dull, plaid shirt that comes loose as he constantly darts from his office desk to a blackboard to a bookshelf, out to his lab and then back again. He can’t keep still because this is the most exciting time of his life. He is making new discoveries almost every week and he keeps moving as fast as the thoughts come to him. He is one of the hottest young stars in his field, and his field is hotter now than it ever has been.
“This is neurobiology’s age of Columbus,” Ramirez said. When he describes his work, he falls all over himself trying to convey how thrilling it is. In the middle of a description of, say, the chemicals that control brain cell activity, he will be overcome. All he can say is, “All right, good, this is so exciting, good, all right. I can’t sleep for weeks, I’m so excited.”
Each discovery is a small step, but his small steps are speeding up and becoming a trot. In the last decade, he and thousands of neurobiologists around the world have been making so many small discoveries so quickly that they have revolutionized the study of the brain.
Ramirez and his colleagues know that someday soon, all of this work will lead to a cure for SIDS and improve treatments for cancer and AIDS. These scientists will help people who have had strokes and heart attacks to lead entirely normal lives. And they will learn how to make quadriplegics walk again. The discoveries made today are so fundamental that scientists are confidently making the most optimistic predictions. In fact, they say, the benefits of this work will probably be grander and broader than they dare suggest. These breakthroughs won’t be made by any one person in one lab. They will develop through the combined work of thousands of scientists around the globe connected to one another by e-mail, journals and conferences.
“It’s extremely rare that anyone makes that single great discovery,” said Dr. David M. Rubin of the department of cell biology at Harvard Medical School. “There are thousands of scientists working on projects in exceedingly specialized niches. The cumulative effort leads to the big steps forward.”
Ramirez began making his small steps forward while he was still living in Germany. He was born in Peru, but his father moved the family to Stuttgart when Nino was 6. He was a good student and eventually received his Ph.D. from Germany’s University of Regensburg.
In completing his doctorate, Ramirez became fascinated by the brains of locusts. Like those of all insects, locusts’ brains are simple. He was able to learn how the network of brain cells sends signals that allow locusts to fly or walk. Ramirez’s work was praised and, in 1986, he was invited to work in the lab of one of the world’s most distinguished locust brain researchers: Keir Pearson of the University of Alberta in Canada.
Ramirez and his wife moved to Canada with their two children. For five years, Ramirez put locusts on little stands, placed wire probes in their heads and studied the signals that the brain cells gave off. In 1991, that work finished, Ramirez returned to Germany with his wife and by then three children.
Ramirez decided that he was ready to move on and begin studying mammals. Mammal brains are far more complicated than those of locusts, and he wanted to understand that complexity. But the move was not easy.
Ramirez’s friends and colleagues in the locust field were horrified by his defection. That sort of thing is never done. Locust researchers read different journals, go to different conferences and conduct different types of experiments than mammal scholars. The two groups do not know each other.
“I got into so much trouble when I left locusts,” Ramirez said. “The people who study insects think that is the only thing to study. They say that studying insects is more elegant; studying mammals is too sloppy.”
Ramirez had exited a field where he was gaining great renown and entered a field where no one knew him or had any respect for his background and experience.
Even so, he did quite well. At the University of Gottingen, he joined one of the world’s top labs that studied how the brains of mice control their breathing. He was given tenure and he made a lot of money, as do most prominent scientists in Germany. And the German government all but guaranteed that his scientific experiments would be funded for the rest of his career. But Ramirez wasn’t happy. He was still haunted by his move from locusts to mammals. He felt judged and restricted.
“In Germany, people couldn’t handle the switch,” Ramirez said. “They are too structured, too small-minded. In the U.S., people are so much freer. Not just in science, in everything. I love it. The scientists in the U.S. were completely comfortable with my move.”
In 1996, after four years at Gottingen, Ramirez told his wife that they would have to pack again. They would take their children (now there were five) to Chicago. Ramirez was offered a lab and a job at the University of Chicago that would mean a loss of tenure and a large cut in pay.
“Moving to the U.S. was not rational,” Ramirez said. “I had everything in Germany. Financially, this move was a disaster.”
To understand why Ramirez made this seemingly bizarre move, you have to remember that he is very much his father’s son. Ramirez’s father, Maro, was born and raised in Catacaos, a small town in the remote Atacama desert in the north of Peru. Maro’s father, the town’s mayor, paid for Maro to study medicine and become a doctor so that he could support the family. Maro did that but was miserable. All he wanted to do was paint. He moved to Germany to escape his parents’ influence and to study painting. He even changed his last name so that his parents would never realize that this famous painter was their physician son.
“He was still a doctor in the day, but he painted all night long when we were children,” Ramirez remembers. “We didn’t have money. We grew up with the idea that you have to do what you want, not just go for money.”
Eventually, Maro became famous. He became rich. He now owns and lives in an enormous castle in Belgium, which had been Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s European headquarters at the end of World War II.
Ramirez moved to Chicago to do what he wanted, to do what he was discouraged from doing in Germany. He wanted to apply what he had learned in studying locusts to the study of mice.
Whether scientists study locusts or mice or anything else, their research has to focus on one specific question. Ramirez decided to ask what the brain is doing when mammals gasp. Yes, gasp. The issue seems arcane, but Ramirez has made fascinating discoveries about how brains are structured by looking at gasping.
“Gasping is our first breath when we are born and our last breath when we die,” Ramirez said. “Many people do not gasp at all in between.”
Mammals gasp when they don’t have enough oxygen to breathe. If we aren’t taking in enough air, our brain orders our lungs to speed up. If that doesn’t work and we are beginning to die, our brains make one last-ditch effort. The brain commands our lungs to take several violent, sudden gasps. If there is oxygen, the gasping will last a few seconds and then normal breathing will resume. Some basic scientists believe that SIDS babies die because of a disorder in the gasping reflex.
Most mammalian neurobiologists have assumed that the brain cells that control regular breathing also control gasping. Ramirez thinks they are wrong. He believes that one network of cells controls regular breathing and a separate one controls gasping.
The network that controls breathing is a highly sophisticated apparatus that exists in advanced life forms, such as humans. Ramirez’s research has led him to conclude that the network of brain cells that controls gasping is a primitive holdover from some ancient beast lost long ago to more evolutionarily advanced animals. This ancient network, he says, lies dormant in our brains, silently waiting to save our lives if we are starved of oxygen and need a sudden gasp to get our breathing going again.
Ramirez couldn’t have claimed this sort of discovery if he had spent his entire career studying locusts or mammals alone. By studying locusts, he learned how different networks work together to control seemingly identical processes, such as breathing and gasping. By studying mice, he learned how individual brain cells combine to form those networks. It is the combination of both disciplines that has allowed him to make his breakthrough. He says he’s just getting started.
By showing that there can be two entirely different networks controlling things as similar as breathing and gasping, Ramirez may show that the brain is even more complicated and remarkable than scientists had realized. He may open the way for future researchers to take a fresh look at all of the brain’s cellular networks: the little commanders that make us walk and talk, make our hearts beat and our eyes see. This is the sort of work that could lead to remarkable cures. But that isn’t why Ramirez is doing this.
“To tell the truth, I don’t care about breathing in and of itself,” he said. “I have the same drive as my father and my brothers. It’s the fascination with harmony. For my father, it’s the harmony of form and color that makes a perfect picture. For my brother, it’s the harmony of all of the musicians making a perfect symphony. For me, it’s the harmony of all of these brain cells working together to create a perfect movement.
“That’s the drive, and the deeper you get into it, the more you are fascinated.”