If someone told me 20 years ago that I would be a neuroscientist today I would have laughed, not because I wouldn’t have believed that I could do it, but because I didn’t even know what a neuroscientist was. I didn’t have a scientific role model or a blueprint for how to become a scientist, let alone a neuroscientist. At that time, my only connection with being a scientist was through television. I believed that scientists were weird (I still do) and worked in a lab mixing solutions and growing bacteria in petri dishes. How do you become something that you have never seen in reality? My mother instilled a strong work ethic and love of education, not by words, but by actions. I could have easily followed the crowd. I suspect that following the crowd may have been easier and perhaps more fun. However, because I believed that education would create invaluable opportunities for me, I followed the proverbial “road less traveled.” Clearly, at that time, I never knew that the road less traveled would lead to a life as a behavioral neuroscientist, but I knew that to become successful at whatever career path I chose, education was the lynchpin.
My Path To Becoming a Behavioral Neuroscientist
I entered college with a strong desire to “fix” people. As such, a career in clinical psychology seemed appropriate. After taking more classes, my interests began to change. Suddenly my career interests evolved from identifying treatment strategies for depression and anxiety to determining why stress made some people more susceptible to depression and anxiety. I realized that a career in clinical psychology would no longer be enough for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t know which career path would be the best fit for me. Most people pursue careers that they have actually heard of or have some level of familiarity. I still had never heard of neuroscience and certainly didn’t know what a neuroscientist did. Two years later, I met the woman (Kim Huhman) who would significantly alter my career trajectory. I was a student in her physiological psychology course and she discussed her career interests with the class. Because our career interests were perfectly aligned, I naturally assumed that she worked with humans. Well, I was wrong. She used rodent models to study stress and depression. My initial reaction was how could rodents teach us anything about human psychopathology? Do rodents even have feelings? There were a million reasons for me to walk away because I was deathly afraid of all animals, but for some reason, I was intrigued. I later learned that a significant portion of her work involved understanding the effects of stress on brain and behavior. In my quest to understand depression and anxiety, I never thought of the brain as a regulator of our emotions. I became fascinated with the brain-behavior connection. I later learned that behavioral (affective) neuroscience was the field of study devoted to understanding how discrete neurons in brain regions regulate emotion. I finally had a name for a career that was perfectly suited for me. I truly believe that I did not find neuroscience, neuroscience found me.
I spent two years as an undergraduate research assistant in Dr.Huhman’s laboratory. I would later be accepted in the PhD program in Psychology at Georgia State University, where I continued to work for her as a graduate research assistant for five years. After graduate school, my research training increased in ways that I could never imagine as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati. As a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati, I gained considerable neuroanatomical (brain) expertise under James Herman. My research training advanced to include molecular and genetic approaches to gain a better understanding of the neurobiology of depression.
Life as a Behavioral Neuroscientist
After 16 years of training (including undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral) I finally have my own laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. I remember the first time that I walked into my laboratory and saw my name on the door, the feeling that came over me was truly indescribable. At times, I still cannot believe that I am leading a research team. My career aspirations have not drastically changed since my days as an undergraduate. However, the tools and techniques that I am currently using to accomplish my research goals have drastically changed.
My Blueprint For Success
The most valuable lesson that I learned during my transition from student to professor is to never be impressed by your emotions. When I started my postdoctoral fellowship, I was absolutely miserable. I was in a difficult situation both professionally and personally. There was no safety net for me and I truly missed “Southern Hospitality” (I am a southern girl). I had to deal with difficult situations that I never had to deal with before. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was not good enough. I went from my comfort zone in psychology to a strange environment (molecular biology). I remember sitting in meetings and feeling like a fish out of water. I remember thinking, how will I ever learn everything that is required of me. Nothing was working for me. I didn’t get the grants that I wanted. I didn’t have the identity that many postdoctoral fellows needed to become an independent investigator. I never felt like I truly belonged.
After three years, I told my postdoctoral mentor that I was going to quit because I was not happy and that I wanted to do something else. His advice to me was to “never take the counsel of your fears”. He said, “If you are leaving because you don’t want to do this, fine”. He was convinced that I wanted to leave because I was afraid of failure. I allowed my environment to dictate my performance. There will be times when you are faced with difficult people and difficult situations that may leave you feeling marginalized. While those things are definitely causes for concern, none of them are justifiable excuses for not doing your job. Never allow external factors to hinder you from getting the job done.
Pay It Forward
At every stage of my career, there was someone in my life to push me forward, especially when I didn’t have the emotional or physical energy to keep going. I know that everything that I went through both personally and professionally was for a reason. Difficult situations, regardless of whether real or perceived, give us the mettle to survive and thrive. One of my favorite adages is “Make your mess, your message.” I want young people to understand that life is not always easy and things will not always go according to plan. You may not immediately have everything that you need to succeed, but you should not allow that to hold you back. I used to believe that the old saying “To Whom Much is Given, Much is Required,” was an inspirational quote. After careful thought, I actually don’t like this statement, because it implies that if you didn’t have much to begin with, then you are not expected to do more. There will always be someone who has less human, educational, and monetary resources than you. As such, there will always be someone who will need your help in some form or fashion.
Diversity in Science
In almost every area of academia there is a push to increase diversity in the workplace. This is especially true for ethnic minorities and women in STEM disciplines. I learned about the MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers) program almost 17 years ago. Fast forward 17 years later and there still are few minorities pursuing biomedical careers. There are a multitude of reasons why there are so few minorities in science. What many people don’t realize is that some students not only have to overcome significant educational hurdles due to lack of human and monetary resources as children, but also significant internal or psychological hurdles as well. It is difficult to be “the only one.” It is difficult to empathize with this fact, if you are constantly surrounded by people who look like you or talk like you. For many minorities one of the biggest challenges is feeling comfortable in your own skin, pun intended. The fear of being perceived as incompetent or not being tough enough can be paralyzing. As a result, many of us do not ask for help or seek guidance. This is something that I continue to struggle with on a daily basis. I am adamant about sharing my experiences because I know how hard it is to feel like you don’t belong.
Let’s be honest, many of us find it easier to work with people who think, act, and look just like us. However, I want people to view diversity for just what it is. Having a diverse work force increases our creativity, productivity, and awareness of others. I learn so much from my research team; they are the best part of my job, and the hardest part of my job. They enrich my research program because they come from different backgrounds and their questions and approach towards science typically reflect their views on the world. As a diverse unit, we are able to tackle a complex topic with a multi-pronged approach. This is just one instance where employing a diverse staff boosts creativity and productivity. There are so many young people who don’t have the opportunity to witness different careers. I am a behavioral neuroscientist because someone took the time to show me a world that I never knew existed. I want to emphasize that diversity is not limited to race and ethnicity. My hope is that the push for diversity in STEM disciplines continues to be an important topic of conversation, not from a political standpoint, but from a ‘it is the right thing to do’ standpoint. We all win with a diverse workforce.