What got you interested in neuroscience?
I have always been intrigued by the idea that everything we think and feel is brought about by the activity of individual cells in our brains.
When did you start doing research?
In high school I did a research project for the Westinghouse [now Regeneron] Science Talent Search on visual processing, focusing on how we’re able to discriminate different shapes, like letters, from noisy backgrounds.
How did you come to choose roundworms [C. elegans] as your experimental model?
I worked my way down the evolutionary ladder, starting with psychophysics in humans, then turning to ion channels in frog eggs and dopamine receptors in honeybees. When I started studying synapses while earning my Ph.D., I realized that I needed an animal model suited to genetic studies, which led me to fruit flies. Then, as a postdoc, I switched to roundworms, an even more accessible genetic model than fruit flies.
Why have you focused on synapses?
For me, synapses are the most interesting parts of our brains. They are fundamental information processing units where learning, memory, and environmental adaptation occur. How they develop with such exquisite precision is still largely a mystery. The roundworm nervous system is relatively simple, but its fundamental biology is similar to that of humans.
In 2021, you spearheaded a petition to change National Institutes of Health (NIH) policy affecting young female investigators. What prompted this?
The NIH gives Early Stage Investigator (ESI) status to young investigators to help them get independent research grants. ESI status lasts for up to 10 years after a terminal degree, with extensions allowed for childbirth. NIH granted extensions for disruptions related to COVID-19, but not if a person had had a previous childbirth-related extension. That discriminated against the very group of people—mothers, me included—who were hardest hit by the pandemic. There are already so many barriers for women, especially mothers, to succeed in science.
Did the NIH change its policy?
Yes, and I hope the petition brought attention to these issues. But I also think the change was facilitated by other, more-influential scientists whom I was able to recruit to the cause.
What do you like to do outside the lab?
I used to be a competitive Ultimate Frisbee player, and I competed nationally throughout graduate school. I’m also an avid skier. Since resort skiing has become so expensive, I’ve transitioned to backcountry skiing. Now I spend most of my free time teaching my two kids to ski. They’re 9 and 6 years old, and I can’t wait until they’re good enough to go into the backcountry.