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Michelle failla

Postdoctoral research fellow, Vanderbilt University Medical Center

 

And - Former English major 

People often think science is all about linear thinking, but creativity is so vital to science. Science is so much better with creative people in it. 

What do you do?

I study how people with autism feel and express physical pain. A lot of people used to think that people with autism didn't feel pain, but we are showing that is not the case. Using carefully designed experiments, we can look at how the brain responds to pain and how social interactions and other factors might shape how our brains respond.

Why did you choose this field?

"I always wanted to study the brain.

 

I am a very visual person and I loved the idea of using neuroimaging to be able to actually see what the brain was doing. In high school, someone told me that the brain was the final frontier of the human body - because we really still didn't have answers to fundamental questions. I loved the idea that I could work on a puzzle with no answer. 

 

I also had a number of really excellent women science teachers, who really encouraged me in high school. They really exposed me to different areas of science that I didn't know about. 

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

That I could become a scientist. I always wanted to be a scientist, but I don't think I really believed it. Even though I had some great teachers that were encouraging, there were so many more teachers and peers that told me I couldn't do it - or laughed at the idea. I look back at those comments and realize I still carry them with me sometimes, but I wish I could tell my younger self to ignore them! I was actually an English major in college at first, until I was sitting in a biology class and I realized I was so much more excited about cellular respiration than most of my classmates. I switched my major to Biology the next day.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love figuring out how things work - and I love that I get to try to understand how the world works in ways that no one has thought of before! It is also so humbling to think that my work might improve someone else's life. 

Best advice for the next generation

Don't be afraid to have ideas and explore them! I still struggle with this, but don't squash your own ideas. Let them breathe! Also, people often think science is all about linear thinking, but creativity is so vital to science. Science is so much better with creative people in it. I never realized that when I was younger.

Fun fact

I love any parody songs about science!