Birds, song, and how we use language

Sami Friedrich, a crab, and the Oregon Coast

Sami Friedrich starts her days checking for zebra finch eggs and hatchlings. She is a graduate student in the lab of Claudio Mello, M.D., Ph.D., working to understand the molecular genetic and neuronal basis of learned behaviors.

What are you working on and why is it a big deal?

I study the brains of songbirds as a window into how we learn to speak and use language. Just like humans learn to speak by hearing and imitating their caretakers, young male songbirds learn to sing a copy of their father’s song. My research is focused on the genes that shape their brain throughout this learning process. Over the course of development, many genes turn on or off in discrete brain structures that evolved just for singing — this network of structures is called the song system. My goal is to figure out how these genes shape and tune the song system to give rise to a robust, well-learned song. I hope this work will lead to greater understanding of the interplay between experience and genes, especially how changes in gene expression are necessary to learn skills and behaviors which are not innate.

What’s been your most exciting moment in discovery?

My first parrot, Doc, learned to make a lot of sounds that no one in my family explicitly taught him. One evening, we all sat down together to watch a Hitchcock film. Doc was derping around on his cage behind us. The suspenseful score started to swell in a crescendo of strings. Prior to any distress calls from the actors on screen, Doc let out a blood-curdling scream. We startled and snapped our heads around. Discovering the feathered source of the scream, we laughed (and he laughed along with us, the little trickster.) Experiencing first hand the amazing cognitive abilities of birds has a lot to do with how I ended up studying their brains.

What’s your day-to-day life as a researcher look like?

The first thing I do every day is to tend to our breeding colony of zebra finches. I feed them their food supplements, check the nest boxes for new eggs and hatchlings, and observe their general behaviors to make sure everyone is healthy. I absolutely love this part of my day.

I also record the songs of the male finches. We do this for a few reasons: one is to evaluate song learning by seeing how closely their song matches that of the father or tutor bird. We also use song as a means for match-making. We’ll place different females in front of each male to see which female most inspires him to serenade. Since both the male and female participate in nesting, egg sitting, and chick rearing, the bond between mating pairs is crucial to breeding success.

When working at the bench, I use a molecular technique called in situ hybridization that lets me visualize all the cells in which a single gene is being expressed. Using this technique, I can examine a gene’s pattern of expression throughout the brain in different stages of song development. When I’m not in the aviary or at the bench, I am at my computer combing through genomic and transcriptomic databases. I use these tools to identify genes and mutations within the zebra finch genome because avian genomes are not nearly as well annotated as human or mouse genomes.

The rest of my time is occupied by conversations with my PI, reading papers, processing data, and writing manuscripts. After my work for the day is done I like to unwind by cooking dinner, then leaving objective reality behind altogether by diving into a compelling novel. These activities keep my imagination in shape and my stress levels from escalating which helps me be a better, more creative scientist.

In the Lab

In the Lab looks at the people in the laboratories — and in clinics — who help make OHSU such a vibrant research institution. In each post, researchers and clinician scientists describe their current work and answer the same three questions.