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Meet Edward Nieh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacology

Dr. Edward Nieh joined the UVA School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in May 2023. Learn more about Dr. Nieh and his research interests. 

Brain Institute: Briefly describe your current research projects and interests. 

Dr. Nieh: My lab studies the neural code underlying motivated behaviors, like feeding, drinking, and social interaction, as well as how malfunction in associated brain areas leads to diseases like addiction and eating disorders. We focus on how the brain controls all these different reward-seeking behaviors, for example, how does your brain decide at any point in time whether you should go grab a snack, take a drink of your coffee, or pull out your phone to text a friend. In a clinical patient who’s suffering from drug addiction, what are the underlying differences in the neural code that causes them to choose drug reward over other natural rewards that they used to enjoy? Our end goal is to design therapeutics that can reverse these changes in the neural code to treat patients suffering from these types of neuropsychiatric diseases and disorders.

How does your research connect with the field of neuroscience? 

I love new technologies and new paradigms in thinking. Our ability to record activity from large numbers of neurons has exploded in recent years. But what do we do with all this data? This is when we borrow techniques from machine learning (or maybe the AI folks borrowed them from us first?) to extract information from these large populations. I like to think of the brain as a piano – treating every neuron like a key on the piano. What we care about are the songs that are played on the piano, the sequences and combinations that generate music. Sure, listening to one key at a time is important for establishing which key generates what sound, but in the end, what’s important are the patterns in music that give us Mozart, Beethoven, or Billy Joel. Very similarly, we’re beginning to understand the music of the brain, uncovering the patterns and relationships in neuronal activity to understand how neurons work together to generate complex behaviors. Perhaps even more importantly, we’re looking to detect failures in these patterns, like mistakes in the music, that can lead us to better understand neuropsychiatric diseases and treat them.

Why did you decide to come to UVA? 

The neuroscience community here has been incredibly welcoming. My colleagues, the postdocs, the students – everyone has been fantastic. People are friendly, and they look out for you and actively help you to succeed. There’s an intensity in the research, but also a kindness in the culture. It’s quite a perfect balance and rich environment for science to thrive. The city of Charlottesville has been fantastic as well. We feel like we’ve really found a home and a place to put roots down for our young family.

What's the best part about your job? 

It has to be the students and postdocs. Mentorship is probably the part of the job that I enjoy the most. We have all these young people who have this intense energy and motivation to make discoveries, and I have the opportunity and privilege of guiding where they apply all that momentum. I feel like when we do a good job mentoring, the effect is exponentially greater than the things that one person like me can accomplish.  

What led you to a career in neuroscience? 

I think it’s the questions. For better or worse, we know so little about how the brain works and even less about (the right) ways to treat neuropsychiatric disorders. So often the answer to a neuroscience question is, “I don’t know. No one knows… but it’d be great to know! Maybe if we do this, and this, and this experiment, we can figure it out”. And the experiments are doable and feasible. Neuroscience is at a point right now where we have a chance to make a lot of important discoveries that can set some fundamental rules for how the brain works – like physics a hundred or so years ago. I simply want to be a part of that.

What advice do you have for neuroscience trainees? 

Keep an open mind. There are very few rules in neuroscience that can’t be broken (if any?). There’s no first law of dopamine or second law of the hippocampus. There are just many hypotheses for how things work that are constantly being rejected. So question everything you read, look at the data and not just the conclusions that are drawn by others. There’s a lot of chaos in our field, but that’s part of the fun – knowing that YOU could be the one to discover something new and amazing! 

What's something new that you've learned recently (at work or outside of work)? 

I’ve taken on gardening since the pandemic. It’s been eye-opening to learn that growing fruits and vegetables isn’t as simple as throwing some seeds in the yard in the Spring and getting tomatoes and peppers when Fall rolls around. There’s a lot of science to it as well, and it’s been fun starting from scratch to learn something new again. My daughter’s also gotten into gardening with me. We’ll see how the strawberries we planted together do in a month or so.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Texas, and grew up there, in Kentucky, and upstate New York. My parents are immigrants from Taiwan. My dad is an engineer and him letting me (and encouraging me to) make mistakes, take things apart, and break things, is a big part of who I am today. For better or worse, I’m used to taking risks, making mistakes, and doing things wrong, but I’ve also learned how to bounce back from failure (after failure, after failure). I think that’s an incredibly important skill in science, where things don’t work 99% of the time. PhDs would take 5 weeks and not 5 years if everything worked all the time. My mom has also been a constant supply of support. She has always believed in me and never wavered, even at the times I felt like a complete failure. I also feel more comfortable taking risks knowing she’ll always be there for me if I fail. I need to call her more…

What's your favorite way to spend a day off? 

I think just a lazy day with my family. Go grocery shopping together, get some lunch at a new restaurant we haven’t been to yet, play in our yard for a bit, watch some Bluey or Paw Patrol. It’s the small things.

What is a surefire way to make you laugh? 

Stupid videos on Youtube… funny cats, dogs, and babies, fails, little kids with cute accents, people waking up from anesthesia, basketball lowlights, silly game show answers, that Squirtle playing the saxophone… very low bar for me when it comes to funny.


Dr. Nieh received support from the Grand Challenges Research Investments in Brain and Neuroscience. The Grand Challenges are a key component of the University's 2030 "Great & Good" Strategic Plan, a set of initiatives focused on bringing the University to preeminence in key focus areas while acting in service to society.