Blog posts

Interview with Professor Joanna Wardlaw: ‘I enjoy challenging dogma’

(Photograph: Maverick Photo Agency)

 

Four students from the MSc Translational Neuroscience courses interviewed Professor Joanna Wardlaw, Chair of Applied Neuroimaging and Head of Neuroimaging Sciences and Edinburgh Imaging. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. In 2016, she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire ‘for services to neuroimaging and clinical science’. Among the many prizes, she was awarded the President’s Medal of the British Society of Neuroradiologists and the Karolinska Stroke Award for Lifetime Contribution to Excellence in Advancing Knowledge in Stroke.

The questions were created by Valeria Finelli, Hamida Mussa, Sasha Pokrovskaya and Rowida Tarabzooni.

 

Out of your countless publications, which paper did you have low expectations for or adopted as a side project but became more impactful in your life or career than you first assumed?

Tricky question. Probably a paper on clinical outcomes three years after a minor stroke. It was a secondary paper from a relatively small single-centre study (McHutchison et al. JNNP 2019). However, it generated a huge response on Altimetric (which tracks social media response to scientific publications), being in the 98th percentile four weeks after publication and in the top 5% of all 12,519,686 research outputs ever tracked by Altimetric at that point. It appears to have ‘touched a nerve’ amongst patients since it reported that 44% had cognitive impairment, 39% had depression despite being classed as ‘mild’ at the time of the stroke, and only 12% were dependent. It led to studies on what aspects of minor stroke and small vessel disease are important to patients, to more intensive studies to understand why cognition and mood were so affected, and now to find ways to improve clinical services for patients with lacunar stroke (a common cause of minor stroke) and other presentations of Small Vessel Disease (SVD).

 

Why did you choose to get into research after your Medical Degree?

Most medical knowledge is only partial, with many more unanswered questions. The more you uncover, the more questions are raised. I wanted to answer those questions and find better ways of improving outcomes after stroke. I enjoy challenging dogma, of which there is a lot in medicine, and other scientific fields, particularly when it has little evidence base and may be harmful. There are many examples in medicine where accepted wisdom has proved to be wildly wrong and, not infrequently, the opposite turns out to be true.

 

When inspired to specialise in your field, how did you choose to go into small vessel diseases? Was it an easy choice?

I started my research originally into large artery ischaemic stroke because I was interested in thrombolysis. Later, I observed some features of a small lacunar stroke that did not fit with the accepted wisdom about causes, started reading and realised that there was a lot more going on in the brain and that lacunar stroke was only one sign of diffuse disease. My interest in MRI meant that it was possible to use Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as a sort of modern in vivo microscope to see what was going on in the brain at the microvessel and tissue level, and it all went from there.

 

Which public engagement activity do you enjoy doing?

I enjoy seeing patients, which I do on a weekly basis through my clinical work. I also enjoy having patient representatives on study steering committees and getting their input on study design. I also have enjoyed giving public lectures since the public asks the most probing questions.

 

What refinements need to be done for a timely diagnosis of strokes and the future of rehabilitation?

There could be a better application of the knowledge that we already have and avoid wasting time on procedures that sound like they might be helpful but in practice are not. Getting a rapid plain Computerised Tomography (CT) or MRI scan is critical; with MRI, you have to use the correct sequences, or it is a waste of time and money (too many places still omit a blood-sensitive sequence). CT angiography or MR angiography may be helpful if a large artery occlusion or dissection is suspected. Still, perfusion imaging is not helpful in the 1st 5 hours (it just adds to delays). After 5 hours or in patients with an unknown time of onset, then perfusion imaging may be helpful, but only then. There is a lot of pressure to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) diagnostic scan reading tools, but none of these is reliable yet, miss haemorrhage and (like perfusion imaging) just waste time. AI tools can only be used by experts, but experts already know what they are looking at on the scans, so what is the point? Maybe one day the AI tools will be useful, but, at the moment, they are not very helpful and even potentially misleading.

 

What do you love about Edinburgh University, and what about the institution influenced you to stay with them for so long?

Hmm. Edinburgh is a beautiful city with many things to do and wonderful countryside. I work in both the University and the NHS, and both organisations have many good but also sadly bad points! I have, in the end, remained here because I have spent a lot of time setting up large imaging and other research facilities and built collaborations that I need to do my research – I have considered moving on many occasions but realised that it would take several years to get back to where I had been in Edinburgh which would seriously delay the research, so have remained here despite numerous downsides to aspects of the way in which the University functions. I have many external collaborations, which mean that I am not really just working at the University but with many networks of great people all over the place.

 

How did stroke diagnostics change during your illustrious career, and how do you see it progress in the next 25 years?

Some of this is answered above. Advances in CT like faster scanning, angiography and perfusion imaging have advanced enormously in the last 30 years. MRI has also changed beyond recognition. Some of this has filtered through into the clinic. In the end, the practical things with obvious benefits tend to stick, while the ‘sounds good but is not much use in practice’ tends to fall by the wayside.

 

What was the lowest point in your career and how did you persevere?

I applied for a Wellcome Trust Programme Grant to research the blood-brain barrier in the pathogenesis of small vessel disease in about 2006. It was a huge amount of work and was based on relevant pilot data, but was turned down as the committee (in its wisdom, none of whom were experts in the blood-brain barrier or even in stroke) did not fundamentally believe that there could possibly be any relation between the BBB and SVD. Anyway, here we are and guess what, the BBB has not only a role in SVD but increasingly also appears to be involved in Alzheimer’s disease. Who knew? It just shows you have to stick at it if you have reason to believe that your hypothesis might be right.

 

Have you ever felt like you faced more challenges than your colleagues, being a woman in stem?

Yes. All the time. I did not appreciate just how much women and other groups are disadvantaged until I was a professor with a large research group. It became apparent that the only explanation for my being missed off committees or taking longer to get grants or papers published was due to being female. There is substantial evidence now to show just how persistent discrimination there is, most of it unconscious. Some of the worst perpetrators in my experience were other women, often office staff, who would fall over themselves to help my male colleagues but look at me as if I was being unreasonable when I asked if they could help me in the same way. The fact that I even had to ask was very telling.

I do not dwell on this since this is not healthy, but I have the evidence handy in case it comes in useful, insist that all groups with who I work, including committees, are aware of and avoid unconscious bias, and encourage and promote women to step up to the next stages, go on committees, at every possible opportunity. We will only change the culture, and it is a massive culture change that is needed, by having more women at all levels but especially in senior positions and who support each other and are prepared to speak out and call out unfair (and inappropriate) practices.

 

Did you find it challenging to maintain a good work-life balance?

Yes. But being a single parent teaches you how to prioritise and maximise efficient use of your time and how to switch between work and caring roles – a change is as good as a rest.

 

If you could give yourself three pieces of advice when you started your career, which ones would they be?

Don’t believe a word until you have satisfied yourself with the facts. If it looks and sounds odd or unlikely, it is probably odd and unlikely. Follow your instincts – sometimes gut feeling can tell you about the right choices in ways that logical reasoning won’t. Logical reasoning, weighing the pros and cons, is important, but if you fundamentally don’t like something, then it is not likely to turn into an enjoyable experience. And have quiet confidence in yourself – your opinions are just as important as the next person’s, so be prepared to speak out and hold your ground.

Interview with Professor Lucina Uddin: ‘Sometimes unexpected insights and ideas come from forced idleness’

Six students from the MSc Translational Neuroscience course interviewed Professor Lucina Uddin, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Analysis Core at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Behavior, UCLA. She was awarded the 2017 Young Investigator Award and the 2021 Diversity & Inclusivity Champion Award from the Organization for Human Brain Mapping.

The questions were designed by Michael Angyus, Julia Borella, Tehila Cohen, Anastasia Ilina, Joey Wong, Ceyda Uysal.

 

Growing up, what influences did you have that led you towards neuroscience?

My parents immigrated to the United States when I was an infant so that my father could pursue a PhD in comparative literature. My mother likes to tell this story. When I was a toddler, I would watch my father pick up his briefcase every morning on his way to campus. One day I grabbed his briefcase as he was preparing to leave and told him: “You don’t do PhD, I do PhD”. So, I guess I had some early experiences at home that pushed me towards higher education. I can’t say that any one experience led me to neuroscience specifically. I do remember trying to select an undergraduate major at UCLA (which offers over 100) and thinking at the time that neuroscience sounded the most interesting.

 

How did your area of interest change during your journey?

I’ve always been interested in studying the human brain. My interests have evolved as newer methodological and theoretical approaches have emerged. When I was a graduate student, there wasn’t very much interest in understanding the significance of spontaneous brain activity, for example. The more I got into the field of resting-state fMRI and human connectomics in my postdoctoral research and beyond, the more I became fascinated with trying to solve the mystery of why the brain expends so much energy maintaining spontaneous coherent fluctuations across large-scale functional networks in the absence of external stimuli.

 

Have you had a mentor, role model or key inspiration during your years as a student?

I didn’t know what I was doing when I started graduate school in 2001 in the Psychology Department at UCLA. I started my PhD straight after finishing an undergraduate degree in neuroscience, minoring in philosophy. The truth is I didn’t want to go to medical school like all my friends were doing, so I applied to several graduate programs in neuroscience, and didn’t get into any of them. I did manage to get an interview in the neuroscience program at the same institution where I had just completed my undergraduate degree. During the interview, I met Eran Zaidel, who would be my most inspiring mentor in neuroscience. He eventually convinced the Psychology Department at UCLA to admit me, even though they had already completed their graduate recruitment process for the year. I like to think it’s because of a great conversation we had, where he asked me if I thought I could win the Nobel prize. I figured it was a trick question, and so I said “I don’t see why not”.

 

What is one of the most impactful books that has influenced your life?

Too many to list! I really appreciate sci-fi, in particular short stories by Ted Chiang. Most of my favorite authors are fiction writers.

 

How has your study of philosophy influenced your work in neuroscience? 

Every scientific discipline can be traced back to philosophy. I began graduate school naively thinking that I would study the hard problem of consciousness. I was intrigued by commissurotomy or “split-brain” patients, who have had their corpus callosum surgically severed to treat intractable epilepsy. Roger Sperry (Eran Zaidel’s advisor, who did win a Nobel prize) thought these individuals housed two separate consciousnesses in their disconnected cerebral hemispheres. I spent my five years in graduate school conducting a series of behavioral and neuroimaging experiments on the neural basis of self-face recognition, the closest I could get to operationalizing consciousness at the time. Years later, in 2018, I was fortunate enough to be selected as a Global Scholar in the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research: Brain, Mind & Consciousness Program. This group meets regularly to discuss the future of consciousness research. It’s amazing to see how much progress has been made in the past 20 years in this area that used to be considered “fringe”.

 

In your research, you also focused on understanding autism spectrum disorder in children; what challenges arise from studying brain activity in children?

Studying brain activity in children, particularly those with neurodevelopmental disorders, is difficult because of the requirement to remain still in the MRI scanner. A great deal of progress has been made using resting-state fMRI because it allows you to explore so many questions regarding brain network organization using a relatively short scan that does not require complex task performance.

 

If you could choose to modify one scientific policy, what would you change?

I would change everything about faculty hiring and the academic job market, which would require a complete overhaul of current practices.

 

What is your preferred type of public engagement activity?

I really enjoy writing and wish I could more consistently write blog posts.

 

What is your opinion of the use of social media in science communication?

I think social media has the potential to be a great equalizer in terms of who gets to disseminate scientific information to the public. I’m very impressed by the number of early-career researchers who have thousands of Twitter followers and create carefully curated, insightful posts that often serve to educate the public and other scientists about recent neuroscience discoveries.

 

What key question are you most excited to research in the future?

In the basic neuroscience realm, it is understanding the basic organizational principles governing large-scale brain network topography (https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.06.20.448984v3). In the clinical neuroscience realm, exploring the impact of bilingualism on cognitive development in autism (https://direct.mit.edu/nol/article/2/4/513/107504/Bilingualism-Executive-Function-and-the-Brain).

 

In the broader field of cognitive neuroscience, what do you think will become one of the most exciting aspects in the next few years?

Population neuroscience is now becoming possible, with several ongoing large-scale data collection initiatives in the United States and globally. I think neuroscience discoveries from these well-powered studies will pave the way for personalized medicine in psychiatry some years down the line.

 

What advice would you give to upcoming scientists like us?

The truth about advice is that it is only really helpful if your own personal circumstances align very closely with those of the person giving advice, which is rarely the case. That being said, my general advice these days is to go easy on yourself. If you don’t have a concrete 5-, 10-, or 20-year career plan, don’t sweat it. Between the pandemic, climate change, and geopolitical unrest, it’s hard to predict what new obstacles the next several years will bring. Accept that there will likely be some delays to accomplishing your life goals. Sometimes unexpected insights and ideas come from forced idleness.

Interview with Professor Carol Barnes: ‘Doing science in several countries was truly an enriching experience’

Photo by Mamta Popat

Twelve students, from the MRes Experimental Neuroscience and MSc Translational Neuroscience courses, interviewed Prof. Carol Barnes, the director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Arizona, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has been the President of the Society for Neuroscience.

The questions were designed by: Adriana Bakoulina, Ida Bomann, Churuo Cui, Aglaia Freccero, Janice Kim, Patrick Kleine, Xinyi Li, Karen Nyga, Ryan Scott, Hyunjin Shin, Olivia Thackeray, Yuting Wang.

 

You are a scientist who has worked in several laboratories worldwide; how did you transition between different labs? And what advice would you give on collaborating with other researchers?

Doing science in several countries (USA, Canada, Norway, England) was truly an enriching experience. Every laboratory has its own norms, and expectations – and the science infrastructure was very different in each of the countries that I have lived and worked in. I did not ‘plan out ahead of time’ how to do this – I just followed the ‘science that I wanted to get training in’ at the time and applied to the appropriate laboratories. So my advice would be to ‘not limit yourself’ necessarily to your country of origin – if there are labs outside your country that are at the cutting edge of the science you want to do. The transitions felt ‘natural’ into the labs I chose– the cultures were definitely different, but I learned so much from those experiences.

 

How did you feel about moving from psychology to neuroscience? And what advice would you give students planning to follow a similar change of scientific ‘fields’?

I never changed scientific fields. When I began graduate school in 1971, the Society for Neuroscience did not exist – and the field of neuroscience was just beginning. I was always in a “Biopsychology” or “Physiological Psychology” program – and these morphed into what is modern-day cognitive and systems neuroscience. So I have never ‘changed fields’, the name of ‘what I do in science’ is what has changed.

 

What inspired you to create the Barnes Maze test and how do you think it revolutionized animal memory tests from an ethical perspective?

When I had the idea for my dissertation, there were no animal vendors that ‘grew rats to old ages that you could buy’. My advisor purchased rats for me (at 9 months) and that meant many intervening months to house these animals and make sure they were happy and healthy until they were about 30 months of age. When designing the circular platform, I explicitly ruled out using a task that required food deprivation or shock, reasoning that this may be unduly harsh for my precious old rats. If I lost animals because of behavioral conditions that were too taxing for them, I simply would not have a dissertation (I could not wait around for another two years to grow more animals to be old ages). I simply used the principle that rats naturally prefer dark enclosures to brightly lit open spaces and created the Barnes maze – which my old rats gladly participated in.

 

What is your main personal mission in science?

To understand the underlying neural mechanisms of memory changes that occur in normative aging. This has been my focus since 1972 (although I did not get to start my aging experiments until 1974, when I moved to Dalhousie University). I do not believe that you can understand diseases that occur during aging (such as Alzheimer’s disease) unless you understand the aging brain upon which these diseases are superimposed. Ultimately, I would like to contribute to finding ways of optimizing cognition in those aging normally for how ever long they may be lucky enough to live.

 

Based on your research, where do you see the research in learning and memory going in the next years?

No idea. I only know what I ‘want to accomplish’ – which may or may not coincide with ‘mainstream learning and memory’ work.

 

What have you learnt from working on supporting underprivileged or disadvantaged populations?

While my initial work was exclusively using a rat model of aging, I transitioned to studying aging in nonhuman primate models in 2020. This year I was awarded a large grant that has as a goal (and is funded to do this) to study memory in the largest, most geographically and racial/ethnically diverse population of individuals across the United States. So I am, at last able to be inclusive of the diversity that exists across the country. I still have animal model projects that I am involved in – but I am very excited about this new human project. Also, I always have a mix of race/ethnicities, socioeconomic levels, and genders in my lab – which I intentionally seek to achieve.

 

From your perspective, what have been the top three highlights of your career?

Early tenure, early promotion to full professor, election to the National Academy of Sciences.

 

Which encounters made you think about research early in your career?

I worked for the chemist across the street when I was in high school in a lab in Berkeley, and enjoyed it. I found a physiological psychology lab to volunteer in when I was a freshman in university – and I continued to find lab work fun throughout my undergraduate years in various labs.

 

What is the most fascinating aspect of working in science?

Loving what you do – being inspired to go in and discover something new every day.

 

What challenges have you experienced as a woman in science? 

Many. But I managed to find various ways not to let the effects of these challenges change how I felt about the science I was passionate about. Not easy; sometimes it is actually really hard.

Interview with Dr Jee Hyun Kim: ‘Life is a library, and each person is a book I can learn from’

Dr Jee Hyun Kim is a neuroscientist and a science communicator. She was awarded the University Medal in Psychology upon completing her undergraduate course at the University of New South Wales before obtaining a PhD in Psychology in the same university. She stayed there as a postdoctoral research fellow, then moved to the University of Michigan, US. After this, Dr Jee Hyun Kim joined the Florey Institute, where she is now the Head of the Developmental Psychobiology Laboratory.

 

Alexandros Sanchez-Vassopoulos) What do you feel is the most exciting part of your research?

The new discoveries we make on how the development and maturation of the brain change how we feel, think and remember. It is really exciting when we carefully design rodent models to correspond to human behaviours and epidemiology, the outcomes of experimenting with such models are also replicated in humans in a laboratory setting. Such back-translation is really exciting and gives us hope that what we do can help people. Lately, we have been exploring sex differences early in life. There has been a long-held dogma that sex differences do not emerge until puberty. Still, we and others have shown that our biological sex can affect brain development and related mental health outcomes. Just as scientists are diverse in background, it’s good to see that we increasingly recognise the importance of diversity and individual differences in how we approach experiments. It’s truly a great time to be a scientist!

 

Fran Pujalte Ferrándiz and Alexandros Sanchez-Vassopoulos) Why did you decide to explore the acquisition and retrieval of fear memories?

Ever since I was little, I always found people’s different personalities and experiences fascinating. Life is a library, and each person is a book I can learn from (even if the knowledge may not have any practical implications!). I find understanding for the sake of understanding very satisfying, and the most fascinating subject for me is the human. Trying to understand people by talking and listening to them has naturally made me realise that much of who we are come from our memories from childhood and adolescence. Also, I realised that many of us had some highly stressful experiences while growing up, but, for some, it is merely an acknowledged event, while for others it is very much present and haunting them day to day. Not only that, but some level of stress is also necessary for personal progress, although some well-meaning parents try to remove all stress in a child’s life. I was also a highly anxious child, although I think that was mostly the environment I was in while I was growing up in South Korea. Hence, I naturally found fearful memories extremely interesting to understand and was very happy to study them during my honours and then for my PhD. I was surprised that not many people studied it in the context of development and maturation, so I decided that I’ll give it my best go to dedicate my life to it.

 

Alexandros Sanchez-Vassopoulos) What did you learn from doing research on this specific area?

So many things! Firstly, I learnt that many of us acquire memories similarly, regardless of age and sex. But what appears to be different is how we forget, how we update those memories, or how we reconcile conflicting emotional content of those memories. Also, it is very clear that while memories of bad events are not bad in and of themselves, but it’s the associated emotions that can be debilitating. We focus on forgetting the emotion, not necessarily forgetting the details of the event. Details can help you ground the memory into context, help you to realise or update that the traumatic experience is likely an unusual event, and that the threat is likely over for good. Interestingly, both anxiety and depression can lead to losing such details. This is one direction our research is taking us.

 

Mariia Safonova) What do you think is the impact of raising public awareness of early-onset anxiety disorders?

I think it’s helpful to ‘normalise’ anxiety for all ages. Most cultures for too long have promoted being ‘strong’ and ‘tough’ – but acknowledging anxiety and other vulnerabilities is actually what makes us strong. It requires great strength to be able to face the truth, accept imperfections, and/or admit when we have made mistakes. What is weak is not facing the truth, insisting on one’s rightfulness, and/or avoiding self-improvement. Without identifying the truths in our lives, it is difficult to progress. Because to problem solve, we need to first observe what the problem is. I know that often parents or friends love us so much that rather than admit facts, they can pressure us to be ok when we are not ok. Because if children are not ok, the level of sympathy and empathy is so distressing; often it’s our loved ones who do not want to believe you’re not ok. I hope that by speaking out about the prevalence of anxiety disorders and how early they can start, more people will accept the distress of people around them. That more people will feel supported to seek help or not be afraid to discuss their experiences. Interestingly, talking about it takes the mystery out of it, which can help face it.

Further, for any mental disorders, it is our youths that show the biggest treatment gap – that is, compared to the proportion of people affected, very few people receive treatment. When we grow up, we are constantly told to be or do ‘x’ to attain whatever we dream. But life is not like that, there is no formula, and it is ok to change your mind, your dreams, or even who you are to be healthy. I feel as though our youths are not told that enough. That most choices in life can be rectified and can be seen as learning experiences. In their shoes, we can all experience anxiety, which does not mean that they’re flawed or ‘abnormal’. This is why I really hope Psychologists become mandatory in all schools. Early treatment is better than late treatment.

 

Mariia Safonova) Do you believe that raising such awareness may help individuals affected by these disorders?

I gave a TEDx Melbourne talk on early-onset anxiety disorders, and, for a while, was pretty embarrassed by it. I didn’t give enough specific instructions to ‘live without fear’, hence I thought the talk was a waste of virtual space and people’s time. But so many people watched that talk. I could not understand it. It took me enough encouraging emails to realise only recently that sometimes people do not need solutions but just need to be understood. To not feel like a freak. To not have to explain why they are the way they are. So I know for a fact that at least a few tens of individuals have been helped by the subtle disclosure that I occasionally suffer from feeling worthless from my own childhood experiences. It’s interesting, some do read between the lines that I’ve been domestically abused as a child, or some just become angry in thinking that my trauma is the funny story of not being good at sports as a kid. I am ok with either communication, especially if they decided to reach out to treatment or close people because of my story.

 

Fran Pujalte Ferrándiz) What would be your pieces of advice for students who are just starting a career in neuroscience and would be happy to follow a research path similar to yours?

Sincerely ask yourself why you want to do neuroscience. There are no wrong answers. It’s ok if it is to impress your parents and friends, wanting to feel smart, wanting to understand, wanting to help people, there is no particular reason but it is not boring etc. This is important because then it will help you motivate yourself in the tough times ahead. Many students I observed are not very honest, and they try to come up with some ‘noble’ reason, but quickly it falls apart when things do not go their way (which is ALWAYS going to be the case in science). I was mentoring a student outside of my laboratory who clearly was focused on impressing people back home and getting into a cushy government position. I don’t think that’s a bad motivation at all. But they could not be honest about their true motivation. Hence, it was challenging to motivate this student when experiments did not go well or did not receive the help they thought they deserved from the supervisory team. When we tried to problem solve, we tackled what they professed as the motivation – helping people. So we thought giving them more collaborations and more opportunities to help people in the laboratory would benefit and renew their interest and effort for their own projects. But this was not the case, and it was clear that they just wanted to attain a PhD with the least effort. While the student could never admit it, and, consequently, it wasted many people’s time and effort, once we recognised their particular motivation we had other solutions that worked better for everyone. However, it does not mean the student learnt as much as we’d hoped during their PhD. Being honest about your ‘why’ helps you think about those goals to motivate yourself. Or at least come to a place where you can decide whether those goals are attainable or worthwhile for your well-being. If you can, be strong to recognise the truths inside of you, and embrace them before entering any field, including Neuroscience. Then I promise the journey will be less frustrating, and you may even improve yourself as a person overall.

 

Louise Schindler) What advice would you specifically give to young female scientists?

Say ‘no’ when you want to. I am not blaming women for not saying no. It is not our fault that sometimes we are put in pressured situations, and most of us growing up have been taught that saying ‘no’ makes us a bad daughter or a student or a functional member of any group. It is just that I wish someone told me when I started out that if I do not like something, or do not agree with the plans, I can say no, and that does not make me a bad person. Only when I became Associate Professor I learnt to regularly say no, and I regret that. Time and effort are resources that are finite, and part of my maturing journey was learning to prioritise important tasks and people in my life. I had to humbly recognise that I can’t do everything, and I am not alone, and that means I should say no. It is arrogance actually to think you can do everything, and that you alone can achieve tasks. That raises the second point – ask for help when you feel stuck. Doesn’t mean you’ll receive the help you desired (for example, some students just ask you to come up with all the discussion points in their thesis or paper and refuse to think for themselves – which I’ll avoid helping in that way so that they can learn for the future), but whatever you’ll learn from asking for help will help you as a person.

 

Louise Schindler) How has being a woman in science influenced your research and your career?

Time and, again, studies have shown that there are subconscious biases against women. These subconscious biases downgrade women’s abilities and discredit their success. Subconscious biases are difficult to combat because they are subconscious. However, we can consciously put in rules to be more aware of the biases by openly discussing the biases and then presenting facts showing how there is no single academic measure in children and adolescents that show sex differences. I have learnt to embrace my role as a glass-ceiling smasher. It’s still challenging, and it often can come with more discrimination. However, even if I am not personally attacked, I feel as a female leader that I am responsible for speaking up if I see bullying or any discrimination. This is also because my ethnicity as a Korean is rare amongst female academics. As a Christian minority of minorities in my field (glass, bamboo, and reverse-silver ceiling), I pray that in research and professional settings, I can make it fairer for the younger people who will follow in our footsteps in neuroscience. This means we try to be rid of biases when our team looks at our data, when we write papers, or when reviewing papers and grants. But ‘try’ is the keyword – it’s not easy. When I reflect on the past, it is important to be able to see when I haven’t tried as hard as I should’ve or when I have made mistakes. I often talk about those to mentors as well students. I ask them to hold me accountable if I am about to make similar mistakes. When it comes to life and learning, I don’t think it matters how old or young you are – I want to value your opinions (as long as it appears to be grounded in truths). What is the value of our suffering and experiences if we cannot change the future for people in our shoes? This motivates me. I do not want my emotions and thoughts to go to waste. These motivations give me a lot of energy to keep pushing myself and others to uncover more truths and help ourselves and others in work and life.

Interview with Dr Sook-Lei Liew: ‘Doing your best at each opportunity offered often opens up new doors for even more opportunities’

Dr Sook-Lei Liew is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California (USC), where she leads the Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory and co-directs the USC SensoriMotor Assessment and Rehabilitation Training in Virtual Reality Center. Dr Liew completed her undergraduate studies at Rice University before joining USC for her Master and her PhD. After a postdoctoral fellowship at the NIH and periods spent at the University of Tübingen and at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, she returned to California.

 

Qiyun Wu) Which stage of your career (undergraduate/ master/ PhD/postdoctoral fellow /Assistant Professor) do you find most interesting, and which one is most challenging?

I think the most interesting stage of my career was during my PhD because that was when I really started to learn to ask scientific questions and formulate hypotheses and develop my own body of research. It was a great time where my primary focus was on learning and developing new skills, which I think is always super fun. The most challenging stage of my career has probably been as an Assistant Professor so far, mostly because it is quite a big transition from being a “student/trainee” to finally becoming the “group leader.” Becoming a lab director and an assistant professor is a lot like running a start-up – you have to figure out budgets and finances, hiring and personnel management, physical lab space decisions, and more, while still maintaining (and growing) your science! It has been a very rewarding experience to learn all of these skills, but to date, there aren’t great training programs to really prepare you for all the decisions you have to make once you make the transition.

 

Emre Yavuz) What has been the biggest challenge you have faced in your career so far? Are there decisions you have made and which you regret now?

The biggest challenge is the first few years of transitioning from postdoc to assistant professor. For most of my career, I was a trainee, and big decisions were made by my mentors. Then, I became an assistant professor, and suddenly I was faced with so many decisions, many of which I was not sure how to make or what the consequences of the decisions would be. Even seemingly small things like what furniture to buy, how many desks, and what color paint on the walls were things that I could not be sure of since I didn’t know how many people would be in my lab, etc. Hiring and managing people was probably the most challenging of all my decisions. While I don’t regret any decisions, I do think that I now approach hiring and management differently than I did when I first started.

 

Emre Yavuz) How did technology impact your research field? What are the most significant technological advancements that allowed you to excel in your area?

Technology is very critical for my field! The emergence of tons of great free software libraries for big data analyses has made our big data brain imaging work much more feasible. The commercial availability of high-quality virtual reality systems has also made our virtual reality (VR) work feasible. The constant improvements in low-cost sensors have allowed us to make home-based biofeedback a reality. Even just five years ago, the laptop we needed to use with the VR system weighed about 10 pounds and was $3000. Now VR systems don’t even need to be attached to computers, and if so, we can get a high-performance laptop that’s 3 pounds for $1200 or less. It’s very fun to see technology improve over time.

 

Joanna Vamvakopoulou) What were the biggest challenges you faced while implementing virtual reality and using such technology with patients?

The biggest challenges are just the technical ones of using VR, which has been getting a lot better over time, but initially it sometimes doesn’t run or shuts down or won’t connect. The hardest part of implementing your own software is that there are always bound to be glitches since we are a research lab, versus a whole company dedicated to building VR software. However, I believe we’ve gotten better at this over time, and it will continue to improve as the technology improves!

 

Sylvana Vilca-Melendez) Your research has a clear clinical relevance: how do you handle the emotional impact of seeing individuals with stroke and, more generally, with neurological disorders?

Interacting with individuals with stroke is the most rewarding part of this work! Admittedly, there is some selection bias since people who participate in our research studies tend to be super friendly and happy to learn and help us with our research. But we are so grateful for them, and it always amazes me how resilient they are. Most of them have come up with all sorts of neat adaptations to be able to do what matters to them again. The emotional impact has been a positive one, and I think most people in my lab would agree that getting to interact with the patients is the best part of the job. We are especially rewarded when we are able to help them get better a bit or give them an experience they really enjoy.

 

Joanna Vamvakopoulou) What advice would you give your younger self when choosing to follow a career in research and academia?

When I was younger, I mostly liked to read books and play sports! Because of that, I double-majored in English and Sports Medicine in college. However, if I could do it again, I would have majored in Biomedical Engineering (and maybe also Sports Medicine), so I could have learned the technical skills I use now in a more formalized manner. Instead, I had to teach myself (using online resources and a lot of trial and error), but I wish I had gotten these skills earlier on. On the other hand, being an English major was great for my writing, and there is a lot more writing in a scientific academic career than one would think, so I don’t really regret it!

 

Sylvana Vilca-Melendez) What would be your piece of advice to young scientists who are trying to find the research field they are interested in?

My best advice is to volunteer and be willing to do what needs to be done, even if it is boring at first. I got started by volunteering in a research lab, and the best way to learn is to take on relatively simple tasks at first, like data entry, and then working your way up from there. For instance, in my first few research experiences, I spent many, many hours manually entering data, organizing lab supplies, manually segmenting brain regions and more. But those were extremely valuable learning experiences. Also, while I did that to contribute to the lab, I was able to learn a lot from what everyone else was doing. Over time, after I showed that I could be trusted with simpler tasks, I was given more responsibility.  and allows you to learn the whole research process in an approachable manner.

 

Maja Wojtynska) Science is becoming an increasingly competitive field. Do you have any advice on any specific skills (computational, soft skills etc.) we could obtain to gain a competitive edge?

For my lab, we prioritize students who have experience with computer programming. We also look favourably on people who have volunteered in research labs already for at least a year or so, because the expectation is that if you’ve been in a lab for a year already, you probably have a decent idea of what you’re getting yourself into! And, if your mentor/advisor that you’ve worked with over time provides a strong letter of recommendation, then that also helps a lot.

 

Maja Wojtynska) Who is the scientist you admire the most and why?

I have a lot of science heroes! The people I admire the most are probably the ones that I know and have worked with personally because I know they are not only great scientists but also great people. I am very grateful to have had several mentors and colleagues that I’ve had the pleasure of learning from and working with who clearly love the science they do. This is evidenced by their deep knowledge of the topic, their ability to ask probing questions and their excitement when talking about a new scientific idea, and their ability to provide critical feedback that makes my own science better. I am sure everyone knows a few people like this, but they make being a scientist such a pleasure.

 

Qiyun Qiyun)  How is COVID-19 affecting your working routine? If the changes you have observed are beneficial/convenient, will you continue implementing them?

In my lab, part of our research was data analysis and another part was collecting data with participants. Since the shutdown due to COVID-19, we have only had very limited data collection. Instead, we’ve been focusing more on data analysis, and doing as much as we can remotely (e.g., taking the time to build out a new hardware/software platform for home-based muscle biofeedback for people with stroke). I believe once it is allowed and safe, we will resume in-person research with participants again. However, it’s been great for thinking more deeply about what our exact research questions and hypotheses are in preparation for eventual data collection. We also have been using software for daily communication more, and each day, each member of the lab posts a work goal for the day, as well as something they’ll do to take care of themselves (e.g., a self-care activity, like exercising, reading a good book). That’s been fun to just see everyone’s daily updates and is likely something we’ll keep up for the future. Another nice thing has been the ability to have meetings and conferences with colleagues worldwide since virtual meetings have replaced in-person meetings. While I do miss in-person meetings and interactions, I also hope that we can keep up virtual meetings since they allow us to communicate with colleagues all over with a lot less time spent on travel!

Interview with Professor Charlene Gamaldo: ‘Diversity must come with inclusion and placing a high value in providing a supportive environment for diverse voices to be heard’

Professor Charlene Gamaldo is a Professor of Neurology and Anesthesia Critical Care at Johns Hopkins. She is also the Medical Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep & Wellness at Howard County General Hospital and the Vice-Chair of the Faculty Development. She completed her BSc studies at the University of Virginia and her medical degree at The George Washington University School of Medicine with an internship at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She completed her neurology residency at the University of North Carolina Hospital before joining Johns Hopkins. In 2017, she was nominated for the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Neurology.

 

Martha Cottam) What are the most significant challenges you have faced as a sleep researcher?

Two primary issues. First, sleep research (when I first started) could be quite expensive and resource-intense as it primarily called for a sleep lab facility and various levels of trained technicians to carry our comprehensive physiologic studies. This makes the ability to even start a career with pilot data more difficult for young investigators unless heavily supported and funded. This also makes the adaptation of these investigative approaches more challenging if you want to be inclusive of a diversity of programs, institutions, communities and even countries with a variable degree of resources. The innovation of ambulatory methods to monitor and study sleep is a welcomed opportunity to close this gap. These various devices, approaches and methods are coming out at a fast and furious pace. Time and due diligence are still required to validate these various methods against gold standard sleep procedures and across various settings and subjects. It will be critical to maintaining the integrity of the discipline, both clinically and investigative. Secondly, the factors that impact sleep physiology include a complex interplay of neuro-bio-psycho-social-cultural factors, which makes it fascinating to study, but also challenging to consider all of these factors in developing a solid research design.

 

Lucy Bedwell) Do you think habitual poor sleep hygiene practices can be successfully remedied? And what are the challenges of overcoming these to improve sleep quality? 

Sleep hygiene is always a good idea to adopt but rarely serves as the sole answer to addressing sleep quality issues. In fact, in research design protocols testing out Cognitive-Behavioural-Treatment Interventions for Insomnia (CBT-I), now widely viewed as a gold and first-line strategy for treating insomnia, sleep hygiene is accepted as an appropriate placebo arm to test against the intervention approach. CBT-I is an approach that typically includes a varying combination of 7 different behavioural and cognitive approaches to address sleep that are calibrated based on the personal needs and perspectives of the patient. This is where the challenge comes: it really does require a very deliberative, intentional and somewhat long-term commitment to your sleep health analogous to the focus and commitment needed to have sustainable changes with weight loss.

 

Alice Farquharson) Which other chronic disease your work on HIV and sleep loss may be applicable to?

I was very interested in looking at the relationship between sleep quality amongst individuals living with HIV, namely because of the neurocognitive sequelae that became more notable once we turned the corner with therapies that allowed management of the virus in a manner more tantamount to a chronic condition. Despite evidence of undetectable viral load, individuals living with HIV experienced a greater degree of sleep complaints along with other neurological conditions such as cognitive loss, depression, anxiety, even neuropathy. I was intrigued since many of these conditions had also been associated with poor sleep in the general population and those suffering from other medical and neurological symptoms. For this reason, it was great to adapt my model of characterizing the presence and potential inter-relationship of sleep in other neurological, medical and community cohorts, including Parkinson’s Disease, Opiate Use Disorder, Paediatric Cancer survivors, Marijuana Withdrawal, Underserved Communities.

 

Nan Fletcher-Lloyd) What is your opinion on the use of meditation to improve restfulness before sleep? 

I love it and think it is a great idea if the patient embraces the technique. I see meditation as in the realm of the relaxation arm that is 1 of the approaches for CBT-I. The key to executing these various approaches and the likelihood of their success is the authentic buy-in of both the provider and patients. If one or both do not embrace the approach, then it is less likely to be effective.

 

Bethany Goh) What was it that initially drew you to the field of sleep medicine? 

I was drawn to Sleep as a discipline because I really saw it as an indispensable part of preventative and integrative health care. Sleep medicine typifies personalized medicine, where optimal care must involve all factors of the patient as a person. In thinking about sleep medicine, I’m often inspired by the words of Sir William Osler, who said, “The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.”

 

Marcelina Wojewska) What do you hope to learn and discover in the field of sleep medicine in the future? 

Sleep can serve as another model for understanding personalized and precision methods of care. Just consider all the factors that influence a person being a good or bad sleeper? I’m inspired by new techniques to further our understanding of the complexity of the relationship to subsequently adopt these approaches with greater precision and accuracy in both diagnosis and management.

 

Lucy Bedwell) What do you see in the future of sleep research? 

Increasing AI application in the understanding of sleep, whether related to developing diagnostic biomarkers, genomics to assist with precision therapeutics, signal analysis of various physiologic signals like EEG, heart variability, arterial tone at the laboratory level and eventually at the consumer wearable level.

 

Bethany Goh) Do you have any advice for BIPOC women entering science and medicine?

Innovation and adaptability have clearly been linked with diversity of thought and perspective. To truly realize this benefit, diversity must come with inclusion and placing a high value in providing a supportive environment for diverse voices to be heard. My advice to BIPOC women entering science and medicine is to consider evidence supporting a track record of demonstrable strides towards diversity and inclusion when choosing programs for your training and career. Once there, try to do your best to surround yourself with a mosaic team of peers, advisors and sponsors who embrace this perspective. Hence, you have a fertile environment not only for you to thrive, but for your team and the scientific community as a whole to thrive as well.

 

Bethany Goh) Have you seen diversity and inclusion in medicine evolve over your career? 

Yes, I have seen greater attention on actionable policies, plans and long-term strategies to address diversity and inclusion in the last year. This also comes with shedding light on the past to understand contextually how historical positions and policies in medicine and in society have had a sustained impact on where we are today. There has certainly been a great deal more magnification on this relationship. The key, however, is the importance of maintaining this focus and keeping up the momentum since the historical factors that got us here did not happen overnight and, as such, the work to achieve a more inclusive environment will not either. It will take sustained resources, time, effort, passion, and emphasis on this being an unwavering priority for everyone in medicine and something we all value as servants of health.

Interview with Professor Ruth Arnon: ‘Pay more attention to the progress women make in their research’

Professor Ruth Arnon is a leading Israeli biochemist and the Paul Ehrlich Professor of Immunology at the Weizmann Institute of Science. She is also the co-chair of the UK-Israel Science Council, a former Secretary-General of the International Union of Immunological Sciences and former President of the European Federation of Immunological Societies. Among her numerous accolades, she won the Robert Koch Prize in Medical Sciences (1979), the Chevalier de l’Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur (1994), the Rothschild Prize in Life Sciences (1998), and she was recognised as the first female President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities (2010).

 

Philipp Klocke) Looking back, what would you tell your younger self about the professional choices you made over your career?

I would tell her that she has chosen wisely. Looking back, I have enjoyed the road I have taken. It brought me satisfaction and, until today, I enjoy going to the lab.  It seems I have made the right choice.

 

Philipp Klocke) What is your approach to promoting scientific research among young people/adolescents?

My approach is to arouse their curiosity so that they will be interested in science.

 

Phoebe Liddell) How has the research environment changed for women during your career?

Personally, I have never felt any discrimination due to being a woman. However, in general, it’s possible that men were promoted at a faster pace than women. Today, it seems that there is an effort to avoid such discrimination.

 

Tianze Lin) Could you please comment briefly on Israeli scientific research, such as main strengths, weaknesses, challenges in the future? I am also interested in women’s participation in science (and dedicated strategies to promote that).

In Israel, there is a great effort to promote science and technology. Over 4% of the GDP is devoted to this. Women certainly participate in this effort both in academia and in high-tech and bio-tec companies. Quite a few women play a significant role – as Professors in Universities as CEO’s of companies, etc.

 

All members) How can we give women more access to high-level positions in research?

Just pay more attention to the progress they make in their research, give them a chance to write scientific papers and present at national and international conferences.

 

Nicole Kocurova) What do you think was the most groundbreaking scientific finding you contributed to during your research career?

The most groundbreaking scientific finding was producing a synthetic polymer that inhibits the animal model for multiple sclerosis, which led to the development of Copaxone.

 

Nicole Kocurova) How does the research environment compare in different countries and institutions that you were/are affiliated with?

Nowadays, in Europe, the USA, Canada and Australia, the environment is excellent. I am not familiar with the situation in other countries.

 

Phoebe Liddell) What do you think could improve international collaboration in science research?

More exchange programmes for students and young scientists at the beginning of their career would be helpful. Also, grants that support collaboration between scientists from different countries will promote teamwork.

 

Federico Licini) What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in academia compared to working in the pharmaceutical industry?

In academia, you have more freedom to follow your curiosity. In industry, you probably have a higher salary and have a chance to develop practical products, whether medical or industrial.

 

Federico Licini) How do you effectively balance your time to be part of multiple advisory boards for relevant scientific institutes while also conducting your research?

I manage.

 

Ruby Lathey) As a leading scientist who has roles in multiple fields of research and positions in both academia and industry, what are your opinions on communication between various sectors of science and how this can be improved?

I am an enthusiastic supporter of communication. It can be achieved by holding joint conferences and by the industry providing grants and support to scientists in academia and, thus, attract them to be interested in projects that are of mutual interests.

 

Nicole) Where do you think research is heading in your research field?

I hope that a universal flu vaccine will be developed in the not too far future.

 

Philipp Klocke) Do you think the BioNTech mRNA vaccine for future MS therapeutics is a potential success story?

I am not sure. It has as yet not been approached.

 

All members) Having worked on the influenza vaccine, what are your views on the current Covid-19 vaccination situation?

Developing an effective vaccine for COVID-19 in a record time of less than six months is an unbelievable achievement. Hopefully, it will help the world overcome the pandemic.

 

Picture credit: Weizmann Institute of Science

Interview with Dr Martina Di Simplicio: ‘Build resilience mechanisms and a support team’

Dr Martina Di Simplicio is a Clinical Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry working at the Centre for Psychiatry, Imperial College London. She investigates the cognitive and neural bases of mental imagery-focused emotion regulation treatment in bipolar disorder and self-harm. Before joining the UK, she trained in medicine and psychiatry at the University of Siena, Italy. She completed her PhD at the University of Oxford, where she trained in cognitive behavioural therapy at the Oxford Cognitive Therapy Centre, and specialised on mental imagery-based techniques. She then worked as a Career Development Fellow at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and as a Research Associate at Jesus College in Cambridge.

 

Nan Fletcher-Lloyd) In terms of women in science, do you have anyone you would consider being an inspiration to you? Who are they and why?

Since I was a teenager, my hero was Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini, the Italian neuroscientist and Nobel Laureate. I guess she was the only woman scientist with an international profile that we would know of at that time. Moreover, her personal history as a young Jewish girl left on me this impression of dedication, resilience and stamina that makes anything feels achievable if you have a real passion for studying. I also loved that she was old, full of wrinkles and beautiful; a different kind of woman to what you would see every day on a magazine. I recommend the comic book with her story if you don’t know her. I once happened to be in a hotel in Siena, my hometown, where she stayed. I saw her from a distance, but I was too shy to approach her. I still regret that.

 

Nan Fletcher-Lloyd) During your career, what would you consider to be your most important achievement, and why?

Do you want the job interview answer or the real-life answer? Jokes aside, so far it has been developing a new intervention that targets self-harm in young people. We are at the early stages of treatment development, so there’s a lot of work to do, from testing efficacy to unpacking mechanisms etc., but our initial data are promising. Importantly, every time I present it to a clinical team or young people, the feedback I receive is that it could fill a gap in clinical need, which is the motivation to keep working on it.

 

Nan Fletcher-Lloyd) What do you find to be the most interesting aspect(s) about your field of work?

I am drawn to cognitive neuroscience because the gap between performance on a cognitive task and translation into clinical psychiatry is *relatively* small. Thus, my research can simultaneously observe phenomenology (i.e., try to get into the subjective perspective of what patients are experiencing) and dissect it into cognitive dimensions. As a field, we claim that if we get it right, by training or manipulating certain cognitive functions (e.g., attention to specific stimuli or working memory), we can revert the psychopathology, but we still have to prove it. This is a great challenge to work towards.

 

Melendez, Sylvana) Could you elaborate more on your work about future episodic stimulation and the clinical benefits of this research?

Episodic future simulation happens in your mind (and body) when you imagine a specific detailed future scenario. Think of one specific activity or event that you’ve missed out on due to Covid-19, and then visualise in your mind as vividly as you can how the first time will be when you will be able to meet that friend again, travel to that particular place, see a relative who is shielding. While you imagine this, you may catch yourself smiling, getting teary or feel your heart racing. This kind of future mental imagery can become dysfunctional, for instance, if someone can’t stop vividly imagining terrible future scenarios, which generate high anxiety. Similarly, one can train the adaptive use of future simulation to enhance motivation towards rewarding activities. For example, to help overcome anhedonia (a core symptom of depression), or to engage in helpful behaviours as an alternative to self-harm. In my lab, we are testing which specific components of cognitive processes can be modified by future simulation and what makes future simulation work therapeutically to improve mood or behaviour. For example, is it about the duration, about how much you repeat it, about the ability to engage somatic areas of the brain and elicit change in the sympathetic/parasympathetic system? I am also interested in translating this into digital tools so that people could use an app to practice future mental imagery.

 

Philipp Klocke) A career in science naturally involves setbacks and failures – what keeps you motivated and on track?

Probably that I remain really passionate and interested in my area of research, whenever I have to start writing or re-writing a grant application, the process of setting hypotheses and designing experiments is fun and makes me overcome the fatigue or disappointment from previous failures. The other important aspect is a good peer network of colleagues with whom you can bounce off ideas and get open, direct and merciless, but constructive, feedback. That kind of contact is more difficult over Zoom or Teams, and it is probably what I am starting to miss due to the pandemic.

 

Alessia Marrocu) Working in the field of mental health and psychiatry, have you found it to be led predominantly by men or women? Stereotypically, it seems that the mental health field attracts more women, and I wondered if you have experienced this to be true or otherwise.

You are right. There are more women undergraduate psychology students, mental health nurses and, probably, the same goes for psychiatry trainees, because, compared to other medical specialities, it has the reputation of a better work-life balance. However, you have to look at the top of the pyramid: as in other sciences, professors in psychology and psychiatry remain predominantly white men. The good news is that things are changing – our Division of Psychiatry led by Prof Anne Lingford-Hughes is definitely a good example. The critical point is looking at how many women get into a postdoc or their first independent research position compared to their male colleagues.

 

Lucy Bedwell) In addition to experiencing sexism in academia, women are commonly perceived to experience increased ageism in comparison to male colleagues. Have you observed any differences in the way younger and older female colleagues are treated and have navigated the world of academia?

Sadly, yes. It’s unspoken, often subtle and non-verbal behaviour, but, to some people, you will always be “a young girl” …probably until you are a professor nearing retirement, and they may not even be aware they are doing this. I think it’s a broader cultural aspect that means that women are still raised to be “nice girls” and it becomes an ingrained mechanism that shifts not just men’s but women’s own behaviour. I definitely catch myself reverting to that position when I am in meetings with more senior people, predominantly men. I quite like being informal (which might be associated with young age), but since I noticed that all my male consultant colleagues wear a suit, I always wear a blazer in the clinic or whenever I have an important meeting. The flip side of the coin is that women who are very assertive and direct can be more easily labelled as “angry”, particularly if they are from a BAME background. I am hopeful though that, as we talk more and more openly about this, things will continue improving for your generation. I am also curious about whether academia more equally led by women will become less hierarchical.

 

Melendez, Sylvana) Which advice would you give to women in sciences who are just starting their career?

First, build resilience mechanisms and a support team… your own “fan club” of other women (and men too) that is a safe space to lick your wounds after another grant rejection and who will boost your confidence ahead of an interview. And not just academics: my most useful interview preparation was a mock with two friends who work in industry. This will help you “market” yourself a bit better while remaining true to your values, as women are still known to be (as a general rule with its own limitations) more self-critical than men.

Second, make sure you say “No, Thank you” as much as yes, as not all offers are opportunities, but can be distractors, and other colleagues can take on that additional responsibility too.

Third, if you are striving for an ambitious career, make sure your partner is ready to have an equal share of domestic and childcare responsibilities.

Interview with Professor Huda Zoghbi: ‘We will never be successful and safe as a society unless we attend to all issues and all people’

The Brain Prize is one of the most important awards in neuroscience. Awarded by the Lundbeck Foundation, it is worth approximately 1,3 million €. Professor Huda Y. Zoghbi and Prof. Sir Adrian Bird were awarded the 2020 Brain Prize for their ‘groundbreaking work to map and understand epigenetic regulation of the brain and for identifying the gene that causes Rett syndrome’, as stated by the Brain Prize motivation. Professor Huda Y. Zoghbi is an Investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a Professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and the Director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital. Among her numerous accolades, she has also won the Gruber Prize in Neuroscience in 2011, the Dickson Prize and the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize in 2013, the Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine in 2016, the Canada Gairdner International Award and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2017.

 

Elton Yeung) How does it feel to be awarded the Brain Prize? How will this impact your future plans?

It was a big surprise and it felt surreal as I had no idea this prize is given to scientists outside Europe or to molecular mechanisms of disease. As the news sank in, I started reflecting about the meaning of the prize and I realized it is a tribute to my patients and trainees, the ones that inspired me and the ones that trusted me. This prize will help us push forward on some challenging fronts to bring new ways to help treat people with Rett.

 

Rebecca Womersley) Learning about the scientific journey that led to your discoveries was incredibly inspiring. What would you say was your biggest inspiration through your research on Rett syndrome?

 Hands down the biggest inspiration came from people affected by Rett syndrome. Watching them struggle with all that this disease brings on and live with it, day after day and year after year, is what inspired and continues to inspire me to try harder to come up with solutions.

 

Kitty Murphy) Winning the Brain Prize is a great motivator and inspiration for women in STEM. What are the key moments that have led to this success?

First and foremost, encountering my first and then my second patient with Rett syndrome. Once I saw them, I could not take them out of my mind and wanted to help. Other key moments include meeting Ruthie Amir, who trusted me and was willing to work on Rett. Then there were the long days, months, and years of patience and perseverance as we systematically went through genes on the X chromosome, till we found the culprit—that was a most exciting moment.

 

Elton Yeung) Back to the days when you started raising awareness and advocating for the Rett’s syndrome (or other works), what was the most challenging step/setback and what was your strategy for tackling them?

Some of the challenges stemmed from the fact that I was young, just getting trained in molecular genetics, and hence it was very hard to have a voice that anyone would pay attention to. The other big challenge is the fact that the disease is sporadic and people had a hard time believing a sporadic disease could be genetically determined. Of course, today, we know this is very common. The only way I was able to overcome these challenges is by ignoring them and doing the work.

 

Rebecca Womersley) What would you say was the most challenging time in your career so far? How did you overcome these challenges?

The first was leaving my Alma mater, the American University of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and being stuck in the USA and unable to return. I was fortunate to be accepted at Meharry Medical College, where I was able to finish medical school. The second challenging time was encountering children with neurological problems during my residency and feeling helpless in that I did not know the causes of their diseases and could not help in a meaningful way. This, of course, led to the third challenge which is switching from being a well-trained clinician to one who wants to do basic research but without a relevant experience—the transition was not easy and was truly humbling.

 

Kitty Murphy) What do you think was the greatest challenge female scientists faced when you began your career? How has this changed with time? 

To me, the greatest challenge as a female scientist was that I did not have around me role models of other female scientists who were successfully running a lab and trying to raise two babies. I did not know if I am making the right decision working, if my kids will be OK, how to balance things, and so on. I created my own world and dedicated my time to family and work. This was the best decision. Today women with and without children are key in the research workforce and are excellent role models for younger women. I share my stories with new working mothers so that they feel no guilt, as for years I lived with worry and guilt, until I discovered my kids turned out great. I thank my awesome husband, who was/is my main source of support and a wonderful dad.

 

Rebecca Womersley) Have you seen a positive change in the representation of female scientists in neurogenetics over your research career? Do you have advice for young women starting their research career in neurogenomics? 

Absolutely. I am embarrassed to say I was the lone female in that field when I started, but today there are so many wonderful, accomplished female scientists, in genetics, neuroscience, and neurogenetics. It is the most wonderful and exciting field as it uses genetics to solve some of the hardest disorders afflicting humanity.

 

Elton Yeung) What would be your advice for people trying to advocate for underrepresented and underfunded issues?

Please do not give up. This is so important. We will never be successful and safe as a society unless we attend to all issues and all people. This is an issue I am passionate about, as well. It is so important, thank you for dedicating your efforts to it.

 

Elton Yeung) How do you balance between personal life, research and medicine? Additionally, what would be your advice physician-scientist to-be?

To me, balance is living life doing what you think is important and dedicating the time to do it right. I am very organized and try to plan. When kids were little I was extremely disciplined about maximizing my work and productivity when in the lab (no breaks and no wasting of time), so I can go home and spend quality time with them, eat together, and put them to bed. I often had to go back to work after they slept, but at least I was with them when they needed me. I also made time for my husband, and we always did something special one weekend night. That said, there was no room for anything else in my life, exercise and other activities, came about much later… I was all about family and work until the kids went to college. Then I had more time to add exercise into my daily routine, and including travel in my working routine. As for a physician-scientist career, it is a most rewarding career, but please be prepared to dedicate 80% of your time to research and 20% to clinical work. This balance is critical.

 

Kitty Murphy) If you were to start your career over again in the present day, what areas of research would excite you as a career path? 

If I were starting today, I would do a double major in biology and math, and then specialize in tackling the genetics of mental illness. Psychiatry today is where neurology was a couple of decades ago, and we need to do so much work to solve these diseases that represent the largest burden on people, families, and society. I would hope a background in math would help invoke smart ways to tackle the complicated genetics of these disorders.

 

Rebecca Womersley) Which direction would you like to give to your research in the next ten years? 

I am hoping we can bring effective therapies to people with Rett syndrome and MECP2 duplications and come up with smart interventions that can prevent adult neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer and Parkinson from ever developing.

 

Photography credit: Mr. Paul V. Kuntz

Interview with Professor Carla Shatz: ‘When I received the PhD in Neurobiology from Harvard Medical School in 1976, I was the first woman to do so’

Professor Carla J. Shatz is the first woman who received a PhD in Neurobiology from Harvard and the first woman who become Head of the Department of Neurobiology in the same university. She made breakthrough discoveries about the cellular and molecular basis of early cerebral development. Past President of the Society for Neuroscience, she is Fellow of the Royal Society, an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and of the National Academy of Sciences. Her long list of achievements includes also the Gerard Prize, the Gruber Prize, the Champalimaud Foundation Vision Award and the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. Last, but certainly not list, here you can find the names of some among the neuroscientists she mentored during her career.

 

Alina Bondarenko) After completing your undergraduate studies, were you determined to pursue a career in neuroscience or were you considering other directions as well? Which options did you have at that time?

My undergraduate degree was in Chemistry. By my junior year of university, I realized that, although I loved Chemistry, it would not engage me over a lifetime. This realization propelled me directly into the newly born field of neuroscience. In 1968, on the advice of my undergraduate chemistry tutor Frank Westheimer, I reached out to two young faculty members of the newly formed (1966) Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School: David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. I spent my senior undergraduate year with them in tutorial and lab experience and was enraptured forever by studies of visual system function and development. Upon graduating (Harvard 1969; there was only one other woman chemistry major in my class), I was awarded a Marshall Scholarship to study for 2 years at University College, London. This wonderful honor happened because, unbeknown to me, the Dean of Students nominated me. It was quite unexpected since very few women were selected as Marshall Scholars (and women were not eligible for Rhodes Scholarships in those days). I received an M.Phil. in Physiology in 1971. The experience at UCL was formative and crucially educational- as a chemistry major at Harvard, I had never taken a single course in biology or physiology and so had a lot of catching up to do.

Living in London was exciting and wonderful, but I was anxious to return to the US. The question, though, was: how should I continue my career training? Should I apply to medical school or to graduate school? At the time women were admitted to Medical School, though in small numbers. Two of my uncles were clinical neurologists and both urged me to go to medical school. But several years earlier, Sonia- my paternal grandmother- had a devastating stroke. Not enough was known about the brain and even these two caring physicians could do nothing for Sonia except put her in a wheelchair and consign her to a nursing home. So, my decision was made: Go to graduate school, conduct research and make discoveries that might someday be relevant to help Grandma. When I made this decision, both of my uncles told me that I had made a “fatal career error” by deciding to do a Ph.D. rather than an M.D. When I received the Ph.D. in Neurobiology from Harvard Medical School in 1976, I was the first woman to do so. I felt welcomed and appreciated by Hubel and Wiesel, though at the time I expect that they and the Department were conducting their own “experiment” to see if a woman could succeed. Happily, the experiment proved successful. And eventually one of those neurologist uncles actually took me out to lunch and applauded my decision!

 

Kofoworola Agunbiade) You are the first woman who received a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard. Could you please give us one example of a situation where you had to be more vocal and assertive than your male colleagues?

As a Ph.D. student, I’m not sure that I ever had to be MORE vocal or assertive than my male colleagues. The environment in the Department of Neurobiology was remarkably supportive. However, please understand that I have always had a forceful personality and I think this trait has been both a strength and a weakness. As a child, my family engaged in many lively intellectual discussions and “arguments” around the dinner table and this family experience prepared me well as a Ph.D. student to hold my own in a scientific discussion (though it was definitely arduous dinner experiences for boyfriends and husband). Perhaps this early training even prepared me too well: Women are not necessarily rewarded or respected for being assertive. A challenge throughout my career has been to achieve a delicate balance on the tightrope between being overly assertive, as opposed to too compliant, since in both cases you end up being ignored. For example, I am not alone in having the experience of gently making a comment at a meeting that is promptly ignored, just to hear the exact same comment being applauded as a great idea when made again by a male colleague a few minutes later. This still happens to me, though these days I don’t hesitate to point it out.

 

Kofoworola Agunbiade) What was it like to work with Nobel Laureates David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel? How did they ‘shape’ you as a scientist?

The discoveries of Hubel and Wiesel of the columnar organization of circuits in primary visual cortex of animals with binocular vision, which resulted in the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1981, revealed brain circuits of almost crystalline- like perfection. Every day as a Ph.D. student I watched the beauty of visual system organization unfold before my eyes. I thought, “all research must be like this”, with major discoveries rolling off the press constantly! Of course, when I started my own lab, I realized that was not true, but from David and Torsten I learned the joy of research, the importance of articulating and presenting results clearly, and the thrill of going scientifically where few have ventured before. I can’t emphasize this point about venturing into the unknown enough- they described their own experiments as a voyage of discovery. If you view your research as an adventure, you don’t tire easily when difficulties are encountered because difficulties are part and parcel of any good adventure. Hubel and Wiesel were real people- we also played tennis together, ate dinner in lab together when experiments were running over night, went on ski trips and so on. From them I learned that the lab is also a home and your colleagues are your scientific family. Hubel and Wiesel have both been wonderful mentors and scientific parents ever since. But note that I did not have any “Womentors”, since at that time all faculty members in the Neurobiology Department at Harvard Medical School were men.

 

Alina Bondarenko) Have you ever felt that you, or your work, was treated differently because you were a woman, particularly at the early stages of your career?

I still feel that way. For a while, I thought that this feeling would disappear with success and age, but experience has proven otherwise. Being resilient is really helpful. Having good friends with whom to share your feelings and frustrations is crucial.

 

Alina Bondarenko) Which ‘leadership’ advice would you give to someone who feels like an outsider?

When I was a student, women were outsiders. Now, happily there is a good representation of women in neuroscience Ph.D. Programs, but not among the professoriate. Women are still forging paths to achieve balance between family and work. And so are men. This is an important time socially, when many men have partners who also have very high- powered jobs and so the challenge of creating a life that can encompass both work and family persists. Being “outside” is not only about gender and diversity. It can also be about being on the periphery of your own research field because you are forging a new scientific path or direction. My advice (which I try to take but not always successfully) is to have compassion and persistence. With compassion comes new ideas for creating a supportive environment based on your own experience. From this work, change can come but only with persistence.

 

Nadhrah Izmi) You are also the first woman to become Head of the Neurobiology Department at Harvard: what are the achievements you are most proud of?

I am most proud of the achievements of the junior faculty who were hired during my ChairWomanship (2000-2007). All of them are now very successful and all have received tenure: Lisa Goodrich, Bernardo Sabatini, Rachel Wilson, Chenghua Gu. Prior to my time as Chair, the basic science departments at Harvard Medical School had not granted tenure to junior faculty, who were generally expected to move on. This situation created both a gender gap and also an age gap between junior and senior faculty because the same great men who were there when I was a Ph.D. student were still on the faculty 25+ years later. The newly hired young scientists created a fresh environment of excitement and scientific novelty, and also most wonderfully all also managed to start families! They themselves achieved this success; I only helped by providing adequate resources and trying to create a positive and supportive environment in which they were expected succeed.

 

Faissal Sharif) It seems like students around the world are being taught with your explanation of the Hebbian theory ‘Cells that fire together, wire together’. What was the origin of that phrase? Did you expect that it would catch on?

It amuses me that the phrase is frequently attributed to Donald Hebb. In fact, I coined that phrase and used it often in lectures and seminars beginning in about 1989-1990, when my lab discovered the existence of spontaneously generated waves of activity in the developing retina (Meister et al, Science 1991; Shatz, Scientific American 1992). The phrase helps to explain how spontaneous neural activity during visual system development can drive synapse remodeling, resulting in highly ordered connections between eye and brain in which nearest neighbor relationships are preserved. The 2 key requirements for ‘Cells that fire together, wire together’ are 1) that groups of closely neighboring retinal ganglion cells (RGCs: the output neurons of the eye) are synchronously active, and 2) that there are Hebbian-based synaptic mechanisms similar to LTP (for strengthening) or LTD (for weakening out of synch inputs) at developing retinogeniculate synapses. It took us a number of additional years to prove that these endogenous patterns of retinal waves are relayed by the RGCs to their target LGN neurons in thalamus and drive Hebbian mechanisms of synaptic plasticity.

I’ve always been interested in the “nature vs nurture” question: That is, the question of how much connectivity is hard wired versus how much is tuned up by sensory experience driven by neural activity. When I set up my own lab at Stanford as an Assistant Professor, it occurred to me that by studying the development of connections between the retinal ganglion cells and their target LGN neurons it might be possible to address this question. The connections from eye to LGN are a developmental biologist’s dream because they are relatively accessible and highly stereotyped: In adult, retinal ganglion cells from each eye form connections with LGN neurons in separate but adjacent eye-specific layers. Prior to work from my lab, it had been generally assumed that the LGN layers had to be hard wired because they form prior to birth, well before the rods and cones function and before visual experience.

In the visual system of binocular mammals, this eye-specific segregation of RGCs is not present at the beginning of development. We showed that the eye-specific layers emerge as RGC axons remodel by pruning away sets of inappropriately located synapses and by growing and strengthening correctly located ones. We also found that these early synapses are functional and that the pruning process, which occurs long before vision, requires neural activity. Blocking action potential activity prevented eye-specific segregation. This observation surprised many at first but provided important evidence against the argument that connections are entirely hard-wired. On the other hand, blocking action potential activity did not alter the targeting of RGC axons to the LGN or the initial formation of the retinotopic map, both of which we know now are dependent on hard-wired molecular guidance cues, underscoring the dynamic interplay between “nature and nurture”.

The biggest surprise of all came when our lab discovered that the type of neural activity needed for LGN layer formation is generated spontaneously by the RGCs in the form of highly correlated “waves” of firing that sweep across the retina. This discovery was completely unexpected and happened at Stanford during a wonderful collaboration between Rachel Wong, at the time a postdoc in my lab and now a Professor at University of Washington, and Markus Meister, a postdoc in Denis Baylor’s lab and now a professor at Cal Tech. We used what was then a novel method of multielectrode recording to monitor simultaneously the neural activity of well over 50 retinal ganglion cells and found, incredibly, that even in the dark and prior to vision, neighboring RGCs in the eye fire action potentials synchronously. Subsequently, my lab showed that this synchronous activity is relayed to LGN neurons. These discoveries in the late 1980’s and 1990’s made me think about how Hebb synapses might function in developing systems, and I coined the phrase, “cells that fire together wire together” to help explain and teach the concept to students and audiences.

 

Nadhrah Izmi) Looking backwards, what advice would you give to your 20-something-year-old self?  

I would have told myself to check my fertility status! When I left home at age 16 to go to college, I had no idea what I might become. If you had asked me then to predict my future, I would have said that the one certainty is that I would be married with children. It is incredible to me that my life has turned out so differently. Back then, there were no role models to lead the way. I married, but waited until my scientific career was fully established and I had received tenure before embarking on creating a family, only to learn that it was too late to have children. I was an “experiment” in early in vitro fertilization techniques, which were unsuccessful despite many attempts. Nowadays there are so many options – and my advice to my 20-something year old self is to have a fertility evaluation and take appropriate steps. Though I don’t have biological offspring, there is still a silver lining. Over the years, I have been truly privileged to have incredible students and postdocs in the lab; these are my scientific children, and now even grandchildren (google Carla J. Shatz Family Tree – Neurotree). Without them, none of the discoveries would have happened. These extraordinary people- many now colleagues and friends- are not only talented and creative, but they have also had the courage to join me on the scientific journey, which has often ventured into unknown and controversial territory. There is no adequate way to express my gratitude to them.