Bugs, robots and brains

Walter Gonzalez didn’t have a lot of lasting friendships as a kid so he spent much of his time collecting insects in alcohol jars.

His family moved around a lot because his parents were always looking for better jobs. Gonzalez found amazement in how insects could achieve so much with so little. When he was 13, he decided to try and replicate the motion of the insects by building robots. Gonzalez used discarded materials his father brought home from his cleaning service job — books, broken appliances, etc. — to create his first, a robot that could move around. A year later he built another that could play pre-recorded sounds and move around with antennas similar to those of cockroaches. He was hooked on science.

At 15, his robot manufacturing days ended when the family moved from Argentina to the United States. Gonzalez left behind his collection of electronic scraps and books as they wouldn’t fit in their new small apartment. The family sold almost everything and relocated with almost nothing.

Gonzalez graduated from Miami Beach Senior High School with a Superintendent’s Diploma of Distinction – an honor given to students who complete an academically rigorous course of study. He then earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from FIU.

With his degree in hand, Gonzalez began working as lab technician with hopes of soon returning to FIU to complete a few remaining courses for a chemistry degree. One of the requirements was an undergraduate research class. He asked Jaroslava Miksovska – one of his previous professors – if he could conduct research in her lab. Although he received the OK from Miksovska, Gonzalez’ work scheduled wouldn’t allow him to research during the week. So he took two buses – two hours each way – on the weekends to conduct research in Miksovska’s lab.

One day Miksovksa told him he could work in her lab and actually get a salary.

“In my mind, after getting a bachelors you just go to work, and that is the end of it,” Gonzalez said. “I knew nothing about Ph.D. programs, let alone the fact you can get paid to do it.”

When he finally settled in the lab, Gonzalez wrote a number 10 on a piece of paper and placed it above his monitor. That was the number of research papers he wanted to publish in pursuit of his Ph.D. For the next several years, he studied protein interactions, providing new understanding of the role calcium sensors play in Alzheimer’s disease, memory and the human ability to feel pain. He graduated with his Ph.D. in chemistry in 2016. His total number of published papers at that time — 15.

Today, Gonzalez is a Della Martin Postdoctoral Scholar, a Burroughs Wellcome Fund fellow and an American Heart Association Fellow in Professor Carlos Lois’ lab at California Institute of Technology, where he studies dynamics of neuronal activity and how it controls behavior in birds and mice using calcium imaging and optogenetics. He’s working on another project which seeks to decipher how information encoding memories is transferred across neuronal networks in the brain.