University of Cincinnati
Don’t run away from your fear of pursuing a career in STEM, if it is your passion.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
I am a behavioral neuroscientist and a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Cincinnati. In my role as a behavioral neuroscientist, I serve as the Principal Investigator for the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and I mentor graduate and undergraduate students in my research laboratory. My research team focuses on understanding the neurobiology of stress-related conditions like depression and anxiety in both males and females. In addition, we are interested in identifying environmental and biological factors that may explain the female-biased increase in Alzheimer’s disease. We use a number of approaches in my laboratory to address our overall research interests including genetic, molecular, and neuroanatomical techniques in various rodent species, postmortem human brain tissue, and human brain databases. In addition to being a behavioral neuroscientist, I also teach in both the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Graduate Program. Luckily, all of the courses that I teach dovetail nicely with my research interests.
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS FIELD?
I didn’t choose neuroscience: neuroscience chose me. When I was in high school, we learned about several career paths, but being a scientist was not one of them. I was introduced to the field of behavioral neuroscience as a junior in college, but I thought that I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I have always been interested in understanding how stress influences our mental and physical health. However, I didn’t know the right career path to pursue given my overall interests. I was able to shadow a clinical psychologist while working as an undergraduate research assistant in a behavioral neuroscience laboratory at Georgia State University in Atlanta GA (my hometown). After spending two years working with my research mentor, I knew that I wanted to pursue my doctoral degree in behavioral neuroscience. However, I wasn’t completely sure of my career interests, beyond graduate school. I took a year off between college and graduate school so that I could really figure out what I wanted to do. Nothing piqued my interest quite like neuroscience, it had a stronghold on me. After I completed my graduate degree, I went to the University of Cincinnati for my postdoctoral research training and the rest is history. I have had several influential role models (both men and women) who have played a huge part in helping me to grow as a neuroscientist. Without my mentors, I do not know where I would be.
HOW DO/DID YOU TACKLE OBSTACLES?
My biggest obstacle in the beginning of my career, as is the case for many people, was myself. I struggled a lot with figuring out what my place would be in this field. There are very few people who look like me and talk like me (Southern drawl) in neuroscience. I had to work hard to silence the voices in my head that planted seeds of doubt. I knew that if I wanted to have any impact in this field as a researcher, educator, and especially as a mentor, I had to get out of my own way.
When I am presented with obstacles or challenging tasks, I give myself some time to respond to them. I have realized that you don’t have to immediately respond to each challenging task and that it is much wiser, to pause, think, strategize, and then devise a plan of attack. I tackle obstacles on a case by case basis. Different obstacles require different things from you.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK AT & THINK, "I WISH YOUNGER ME WOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS WAS POSSIBLE?"
I wish my younger self would have known that EVERYONE is trying to figure this thing called life out. For example, many of the most prominent researchers and professors look like they have it completely together, but secretly they are all works in progress.
WHY DO YOU LOVE WORKING IN STEM?
I love working in STEM for several reasons. First, I love the intellectual freedom that I have to pursue my research interests. I also enjoy collaborating with my research team and my colleagues on pressing biomedical research questions. I know that the work that I am doing in the laboratory and in the classroom will have an impact on the next generation of behavioral neuroscientists.
BEST ADVICE FOR NEXT GENERATION?
Don’t run away from your fear of pursuing a career in STEM, if it is your passion. Lean into your fear or that feeling of being overwhelmed when faced with new situations, especially in this field. While many people view fear as pathological, it is normal to have some fear or anxiety when faced with new challenges. A little bit of fear is a behavioral response to stress which is adaptive and can actually provide fuel (aka motivation) to get the job done.
I was recently talking with my mom about an influential woman in her church community who is now well past 100 years old. This woman was asked what is the key to living a long and happy life? Her response to the community was to “Be Kind, Drink Water, and Mind Your Own Business.” I can’t think of better words to live by.