It all changed when it hit upon psychology in my junior year and became interested in brain function. I did a research project with the eminent neuroscientist, Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic. We studied the effects of lesions on brain function and memory in a part of the brain called the frontal cortex. That experience so fascinated me that I returned to Oberlin, changed my major to psychobiology, and began taking science courses to catch up.
When Professor Goldman-Rakic moved her lab to Yale, I had just graduated from college, and I too went to Yale to work as her research assistant. I did behavioral tests on monkeys, where they had to choose food pellets on one side or the other of the cage, to evaluate their working memory.
In graduate school at Rockefeller University, I became more interested in the cellular mechanisms of the brain. What regulates how different cells do different things? In the brain, neurons can express different neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and GABA, and their receptors, which also determines their function. I was very interested in the regulation of how different neurons express different transmitters.
I worked on an enzyme called tyrosine hydroxylase, which is the rate limiting enzyme in the synthesis of catecholamines like dopamine and adrenaline. We investigated what regulates the activity of tyrosine hydrolyase in the developing brain. Most of our experiments used developing brain tissue in vitro.
As a postdoc at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, I studied nerve growth factor (NGF). This factor was discovered in the 1950’s, and in 1986 its discoverer, Rita Levi-Montalcini, together with Stanly Cohen, the discoverer of a different growth factor, EGF, received the Nobel prize for medicine. Today at Rutgers, I still work on NGF, elucidating the mechanisms of how NGF and related factors regulate neuronal cell survival and cell death.
We focus on inappropriate cell death in injury and diseases like epilepsy and Alzheimer’s. We induce seizures and study cell death in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is involved in short-term memory. NGF supports survival and growth of neurons by binding to the TRK receptor (pronounced ‘track’), after it’s cleaved. The uncleaved pro-form of NGF however, promotes neuronal death by binding to another receptor called p75. Recently, we discovered that after a seizure, the amount of pro-NGF goes up, and it activates cell death by p75. However, even if both the survival receptor TRK and the death receptor p75 are activated, cell death still takes place. Recently, we found a key enzyme responsible for death over life: the protein PTEN overrules the survival pathways and allows the death pathway to proceed.
By doing this fundamental research of the mechanism of cell death, we hope to find a drug that can block cell death after injury, and maybe prevent Alzheimer’s disease some day.
I never felt discriminated against because I am a woman. My parents stimulated both my brother and me to study; I never felt any roadblocks in pursuing a career in science. I am fortunate to have had exceptional women mentors, by seeing Dr. Patricia Goldman-Rakic at work as a successful scientist; it never occurred to me that women could not be successful in the field. Dr. Cheryl Dreyfus from UMDNJ was also a great mentor to me, she taught me many things about how to do science, including how to use brain cultures, a tool I still use today. She is a successful scientist who combines her work with family life, and she has become a good friend.
I think I learned a lot from every colleague I worked with, male or female. Everybody poses questions, and teaches you to think in a scientific way. I love working in a scientific community; the people I studied with have become collaborators and friends over the years, who I often meet at conferences.
My brother and I were brought up with the idea that doing well in school was important, but not everything. So I always did a lot of extracurricular activities like playing piano and cello, and sports like fencing and sailing. I still do sailing races every Wednesday night; it gives me a mental break from work.
Today, my brother Jonathan and I both work in neuroscience. Although my father never pushed us in any direction in school, he was of course please to see us going into this field. We both took a different route though: I did a bachelor in psychobiology, my brother studied math and biophysics. A few years ago, we actually collaborated on a study on p75 and published a paper together.
When I talk to undergraduate students, I try to get them exposed to neurobiology and instill excitement about science. I sometimes tell them my story about my late ‘waking up’ in science, to show that you can take a different path too.
I find that many students like science, but don’t consider it as a career. I try to tell them that it’s also possible to study science for its own sake, instead of going to medical school, for example.
With my graduate students, I try to help them focus on experiments that lead to a thesis. It’s hard not to get distracted by science, or discouraged by lack of results. I hope to teach how to plan their research activities, persist in their goals, and to enjoy dong science.