Ada Lovelace Day is coming up on the 11th Oct, and at Braintastic! Science we are huge believers in supporting and highlighting some of the wonderful women who have driven forward our understanding of our amazing brains. There are so many fantastic people I could have chosen, but I have decided to profile 3 fabulous women, whose work I covered in my book, Overloaded. Read on to find out a little bit more about their neuroscience careers.
Amy is Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, where she studies memory. When I interviewed her for Overloaded, she explained that when memories are stored in the brain, they go through a process called consolidation. But when we recall them, they become flexible and changeable, and have to go through a similar, but slightly different process, known as reconsolidation, to store them again. It is here that Amy’s research lies- looking at whether disrupting the reconsolidation process can help with addiction, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and, more recently, OCD.
On an episode of the ReMake podcast, she explained what drew her towards a career as a neuroscientist:
‘I’ve always been really interested in what we intend to do and what we actually do…we may go in with the best intentions, but the environment we are in ends up driving our behaviours in ways that we aren’t consciously aware of”
She explained that both of her parents were smokers, and both tried to quit, repeatedly, but always ended up relapsing. This led her to a PhD investigating whether disrupting memories linked to drug use could help reduce the chances of relapse. Since then, she has looked at memory-based treatments for other disorders, particularly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder- one of the most difficult mental illnesses to treat. As well as helping us understand memory better, her work
has the potential to help millions of people, which I think is pretty incredible!
Listening to Dr Bianca Jones Marlin talk, her love for science is clear. In an interview with Claudia López Lloreda for Massive Science, she explained why she is so passionate about her job:
“I get to be the first one to know the answer… there’s something magical about that. I love studying the complexity of the brain because it’s interesting and it’s fun.”
Her interest in the brain can be traced back to her childhood. Growing up with parents who regularly fostered other children, she began to wonder why her foster siblings’ parents couldn’t look after them in the same way her own could.
This question led her to a PhD studying maternal behaviour in mice. She discovered that there is a switch in a mouse’s brain that flips once she has given birth. This changes her behaviour- now a mother mouse will pick up a crying baby mouse, and take it back to the nest, rather than ignoring or eating it, as a mouse that had never given birth would.
“I found that oxytocin, the love hormone, changes the way the hearing centres of the brain respond to a baby crying once a mother gives birth.”
In fact, she found a non-mother mouse would behave like a mother mouse if they gave her a dose of oxytocin. And she could even see the changes in brain neurons which went along with this switch.
Having set up her own lab at Columbia, Bianca is now focused on how stress and trauma can affect not just a single generation, but also their children, and their children’s children. This is a fascinating topic, known as ‘epigenetics’, and Bianca hopes that by understanding how this works in mice, we might be able to find ways to reduce the impact of trauma in humans.
She is also passionate about smashing stereotypes and promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in science, saying:
“Our presence as Black women in science is so needed because our unique perspective informs all of society…. because it’s unique and underrepresented, it’s all the more needed…our presence makes better science”
I couldn’t agree more!
Catherine Harmer is the director of the Psychopharmacology and Emotional Research Lab at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on understanding what’s going on in the brain when someone is experiencing depression, and how treatments for it work. In an interview with ‘CortexCast’, she said:
“I was always interested in how these medications actually worked given that most of these treatments were discovered by chance… and even now, we aren’t 100% sure how they work!”
Unusually, she and her team are exploring both drug- based and behavioural treatments, and trying to understand how changes in tiny molecules in the brain can lead to changes in how we feel. In 2017, she published a paper showing that treatment with SSRI antidepressants changed the way people with depression process the information they take in from the outside world. When I spoke to her, she explained that she believes this might be how the drugs work, by helping people focus on the positives, rather than the negatives. This finding was particularly important because the change happened immediately in most patients, even though it took them weeks to start feeling better.
Often, people have to try several different drugs before they find one that works, and this process can take months. Her findings can tell us immediately whether a drug will work for that particular patient, and it is now being trialled for use in the real world.
Catherine’s group are now using similar markers to test new drugs that might be useful for depression. They hope to decipher how they affect the brain and find new and better treatments to help patients.
We hope you enjoyed reading about these 3 outstanding Women in STEM and their careers in psychology. It’s clear that all three have a passion and drive to help make the world a better place, and that they have chosen to do that through a STEM career. And they aren’t alone- there are so many women doing amazing work to help us understand our incredible complex brains.
Do you have a favourite woman neuroscientist or psychologist you’d like us to write about? Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us @BraintasticSci. And if you are looking to inspire the next generation of brain experts, why not book a show or workshop for your school.