Modus Operandi with Erik Burlingame

Modus Operandi is a regular series that peers into the methods and personalities of UO  undergraduate scholars. 

Erik Burlingame is a senior biochemistry major in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry conducting research in the Washbourne Lab. Burlingame’s research focuses on the assembly of synapses. Synapses are functional units of connectivity that permit the exchange of information between cells in the nervous system and, as such, the correct formation of synapses is critical to nervous system development.   In this area, the Washbourne lab is interested in the molecular mechanisms that undergird the spatially- and temporally-precise assembly of synapses.

UROP caught up with Erik to learn more about his modus operandi.


Students are busy; do you use any apps or technology to help manage your time and productivity?

I am definitely behind the curve in this respect. I keep a whiteboard in my bedroom that serves as an interactive to-do list. The nearer the due date for a particular item, the more that item is annotated with asterisks. It’s an older technological platform, but they got it right. No software updates required.


What are a few of the primary tools and/or resources that you use in conducting research? What do they do?

I spend a lot of time with microscopes. Standard light microscopes are used to monitor the behavior of zebrafish embryos from various experimental conditions. I later use a laser confocal microscope to assess synapse formation within the spinal cords of embryos from each condition, under the assumption that dysfunctional behavior can be explained by dysfunctional synapses.

How did you get started in research?

I got the first inkling after reading the pop-neurology books of Oliver Sacks. His lucid accounts of neurological diseases, disorders, and the humans they affect deeply inspired me. The avenues for studying the nervous system were limited at the café I was then working at, so I quit in the fall to return to school. After two years of community college, I transferred to UO and began looking to join a neuroscience lab whose research interests were most similar to mine. I joined Phil Washbourne’s lab shortly thereafter, where research into the molecular mechanisms that underlie behavior has made for my most rewarding and engrossing experiences as an undergraduate.

If you could do research in a different field, what would it be? Why?

My first in-earnest research project focused on the merger of art and manufacturing in 16th-century Antwerp. Now I’m researching synapse formation in zebrafish. While the two fields are very different, they have both elicited the same child-like wonder in me. It’s the process that is important. I would be happy doing research in any field, if they’d have me.

What is your favorite place on campus?

I anticipate that my answer a few months from now will be the Science Library café. But for now, its one of the two benches on the walk between Willamette and Volcanology on the way to the Science Library. When the sun is out, the shrubberies offer a nice mottled shade, a great place to read a book.

What are you currently reading?

Ask the Dust by John Fante and an article about transition metal efflux in bacteria.

Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what genre(s) and why?

I can’t have someone singing in a language I understand, otherwise I get pulled into the song and out of my work. This leaves me with instrumentals and groups with non-English vocalists, which is great, because that’s most music. For deep focus, I gravitate towards droning electronic music. If I’m feeling peppy, I almost always reach for the lilting orchestral maneuvers of Steve Reich.

How do you stay inspired and energized?

I make time to go outside. I became and remain interested in science because of what is out there.

Coffee, tea, or soda person? Copious amounts, or within reason?

Coffee, in moderation. Tea and soda have their places, behind and very far behind coffee, respectively.

Have you thought about what you want to do after graduation?

I will be spending the next year in the Applied Bioinformatics and Genomics Master’s Program here at UO. After that I will be targeting computational biology PhD programs.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Fail gracefully.