I went to dinner with my former PhD supervisor and her lab. It was so refreshing being back in that intellectual space among people sharing their topics of study. I was particularly happy to be in the presence of my former supervisor, Lisa. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with her and all of the research I had done in her lab. She was an incredible mentor, scientist, and friend. She supported my productivity in many ways, including emotionally by being passionate about research herself and physically with lots of hired technical support. She really was my perfect supervisor and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
I think her students are fortunate and I tried to convey that to them. I realized this quite starkly once I finished my PhD in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience in Faculty of Science and moved over to the Faculty of Medicine, both at Dalhousie University. What was once a lively, collaborative, and enthusiastic environment around me in Psychology turned into an environment where science enthusiasm clearly went to die, if it ever existed in the first place. Students within my post-doc environment were mostly doing research as stepping stones to get into medicine, grad students were similarly waiting for their chance at at a medical career or simply doing a master’s because of blindly following the education-inflation trend rather than out of true interest, and post-docs were bitter, tired, and lacked any sense of fun in science.
I eventually gravitated toward a few like-minded peers and PIs who were both sincerely interested in science, particularly hypothesis- and theory-driven science. Most others within the lab were blindly doing technique-driven science and pumping out DNA microarray and immunohistochemistry data left, right, and centre, without any real sense of purpose and bigger picture.
I spent 2 years there and then, what I never imagined would happen, happened. I decided to leave the bench. My fall from the Ivory Tower began with innocent coffee meetings with a naturopathic doctor friend of mine who was starting a multidisciplinary health centre. We envisioned a big centre with lots of practitioners, including me as a life coach and as the Director of Education. I started to become interested in applying my knowledge outside the walls of academia and eventually coordinated the centre’s Health Seminar Series for the general public and started to create my own curriculum based on neuroscience and psychology.
This new applied, non-academic path collided one week when I had 2 papers rejected after 2 recent grants were also denied. Everything, including the negative, unproductive environment I was in, was coming together to make me very angry, disillusioned, and uninspired in science — a terrible recipe for productivity or creativity.
In 2008, 3 years after defending my PhD dissertation, I left the bench. For a good 2 years I was absolutely turned off from all neuroscience. I could barely return to the lab to visit people. I could not bring myself to teach at the university, which was probably good because I would have been the most uninspiring professor ever! I could not even read a scientific paper, never mind attend a conference. I was out and ready to never look back.
Then in 2009 I ran my first public neuroscience course. I had 8 people for 8 weeks and we had a class once a week for 2 hours. During that time I taught them about some basics of how the brain worked in various contexts relevant to them and their life, which included stress, addictions, frontal-lobe functions, emotions, and developmental disorders. This course ended up becoming the foundation for me to launch a 5-weekend course on personal development, neuroscience, psychology, yoga, and mindfulness, which continues to run to this day. In 2010, I left the health clinic that lured me off the bench and started my own company, the Centre for Applied Neuroscience (CAN). Today, in addition to still running my course for general public (which also serves as a component of the life-coach training program I developed), we (i.e., CAN) go into work places as a trainer and offer skill development in brain health and wellness, including stress management, optimism training, productivity, mindfulness, and thinking skills. We also work with people in private coaching sessions to help them identify goals to pursue, to pursue healthy changes in their life, and to manage themselves, work with their emotions, modify their behaviours, and develop better thinking skills. I, myself, also speak professionally as a keynote for various types of conferences, write professionally on a contractual basis, provide scientific literature reviews and consultation, and teach at two universities within Toronto on occasion.
“Do you regret your decision not to pursue your research career?” a student from Lisa’s lab asks.
“Well… yes and no.” I answer. Sometimes I feel this incredible sense of longing for a real research lab (N.B. I have a very small one starting on the side now BTW). And sometimes I feel the agonizing pull towards the fame of scholarship that I see when I attend meetings like Society for Neuroscience. And when talking with Lisa and all of her students I am incredibly nostalgic for my life as a grad student, which I really did feel was pretty perfect in many ways. In fact, I always wanted to have a lab and be up in my office writing grants while my many students collected data for one big picture — an aspect of the career that many young scientists claim they wouldn’t like but eventually learn to tolerate. But that was not my fate and I have only myself to blame… or thank…
I am an entrepreneur. I didn’t know this until after leaving science and realizing that my entrepreneurial mind had a place in this world beyond the bench.
Wikipedia says this about entrepreneurship:
Entrepreneurs are leaders willing to take risk and exercise initiative, taking advantage of market opportunities by planning, organizing, and employing resources, often by innovating new or improving existing products. More recently, the term entrepreneurship has been extended to include a specific mindset (see also entrepreneurial mindset) resulting in entrepreneurial initiatives, e.g. in the form of social entrepreneurship, political entrepreneurship, or knowledge entrepreneurship.
To me, this is what creative scientists do too. They take risks, exercise initiative, and see opportunities within the field for improving products (or knowledge). This last form of entrepreneurship directly speaks to entrepreneurship from a knowledge perspective.
Knowledge entrepreneurship describes the ability to recognize or create an opportunity and take action aimed at realizing an innovative knowledge practice or product. Knowledge entrepreneurship is different from ‘traditional’ economic entrepreneurship in that it does not aim at the realization of monetary profit, but focuses on opportunities with the goal to improve the production (research) and throughput of knowledge (as in personal transformation), rather than to maximize monetary profit. It has been argued that knowledge entrepreneurship is the most suitable form of entrepreneurship for not-for-profit educators, researchers and educational institutions. According to Wikipedia.
I find this particularly interesting, especially for me who, in addition to identifying as an entrepreneur, does not resonate with being a businessperson. The truth is that money doesn’t motivate me (not a good thing when running your own company but a reality nonetheless). What does motivate me is knowledge, including the seeking, creation, and dissemination of it.
I share this because I suspect many others may identify as such, without even knowing it. And the truth is, that’s what I was doing in the lab. My ideas in the lab were innovative and entrepreneurial. I took intellectual risks and inadvertently scanned the field for emerging intellectual opportunities. I did a handful of safe research, which I called “parametric” studies that served to better understand a phenomenon, practically. But I also did many risky and creative studies, which were my favorite! Some took a long time to formulate and I immersed in the literature and some happened like sparks of genius. Fortunately, Lisa not only let me, but encouraged me to have varied interests and angles within the lab, so long as I properly articulated them to her!
I was a good scientific thinker and sometimes felt I was a bit ahead of the curve. For example, for my doctoral research, I was working on adult neurogenesis in a kindling model and, through a few carefully thought-out experiments, I had proposed that the intense fear experienced by amygdala-kindled rats (a model of epilepsy) in new environments was the result of a dysfunctional hippocampus. The hippocampus normally participates in the animals (including humans) ability to familiarize oneself in the context. Things are are novel are scarier and things that are familiar are less scary. If a rat is rendered unable to familiarize itself with the environment then it could lead to sustained and increasing fearfulness. To test this, I showed that the hippocampus was indeed dysfunctional through a carefully-planned study using a hippocampal-dependent version of the Morris water maze. I also hypothesized these very fearful rats would have dysfunctional hippocampal neurogenesis, which had previously been shown to to accompany other models of epilepsy. I needed to show that this same dysfunction was present in our model and that it was related to the levels of fear behaviour shown by our rats in new environments. Indeed, my data supported this hypothesis too.
I further proposed that because the newly born cells were being born under the pathological conditions of epilepsy, that they were subjected to abnormal stimulation. Normally, a new cells would be stimulated in ways that were useful, like to support the formation of a new memory. But within the context of epilepsy, new cells being born would form their connections within the existing hippocampal network that was pathological and contribute to a dysfunctional hippocampus. That latter hypothesis was part of the discussion of my dissertation and I never got the chance to test it after graduating.
So, regret? Indeed, lots of it, particularly when I went to Lisa’s PhD student’s poster this week and saw a wonderful characterization and brilliant extension of some of my original thinking of the topic, but my name is no where to be found within the references because I failed to publish my data. Those two papers I mentioned above that got rejected? Well, they contained the work for that thinking but I never resubmitted them and someone else came along and published similar findings them self.
So yes, that invokes some regret. I also felt some regret last year at Society for Neuroscience (my first meeting back since 2007) when I heard Fred Gage (neurogenesis researcher) talk about the now common knowledge within the neurogenesis field that too much neurogenesis can be pathological and can contribute to malformed networks and dysfunctional brains and behaviours. That was like a knife through my heart, and not because I think I would have been the one to propose that but because I would have been part of the early data that speaks to it as a real neurological phenomenon in a field that was only 10 years old at the time.
So regret? Indeed. There is much to regret in life indeed.
But can I honestly regret where I am now? No. I love my work. I love that I run my own company, have some employees, and have brought neuroscience to so many non-neuroscientists. I love that I am not bogged down with a heavy teaching load at the university yet come in about 3 times a year to teach courses and get to offer undergraduate students a perspective beyond the bench. I love that I have spent this fall with a cleared scheduled (that I did myself) so I could focus on a book that I am writing entitled Me, My Brain, and I, a book that was originally conceived in 2003, while I was in the middle of my doctoral studies. I also absolutely love living with my husband in this wonderful city of Toronto, with so many creative, innovation, and progressively-thinking minds around me, many of whom reject the academic perspective entirely and therefore I would otherwise have likely not met. I love having bold ideas of wanting to start my own university, develop a rat colony for study in my basement, and have content for 2 more books after the one I am working on is done. I love my life.
Do I regret not pursuing a research career? No. What I regret is that there is not enough time in this one life to do everything that I want. Could I have had that academic life? Yes, of course, and so can anyone who pursues it wholeheartedly. I firmly believe that. But I chose to wholeheartedly pursue another direction with other factors weighing in.
I’m reminded of the very last talk at the Society for Neuroscience that I went to before heading out to the airport yesterday: The Fred Kavli History of Neuroscience Lecture by Floyd Bloom. I have come to really appreciate the history lectures because they really help put science (or pursuit in general) into perspective and I hope many young neuroscientists can find inspiration for a passionate and perseverant pursuit in science. During his talk, Bloom described Otto Loewi’s Nobel Prize discovery of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in memory and muscle control. But Bloom also talked about Loewi’s foundational experiments that defined neurotransmission as being chemical, rather than bioelectrical, which till that time remained unclear. In those experiments, Loewi dissected out two frog hearts and placed them in separate liquid solutions. He then stimulated the first heart and watched it slow down. Then he took the liquid of that stimulated heart and applied it to the second heart. To his amazement, he saw that this second heart began to beat slower just like the first one despite any physical contact with the first heart. The conclusion he drew was that the transmission of signal was contained within the solution and that meant that the signal must have been chemical rather than electrical.
What I loved about Bloom’s account of this story was that Bloom also mentioned that these studies were not replicable for 6 years. Even Loewi himself could not replicate his own work! Eventually, it became clear that extraneous factors associated with the liquid solution were preventing the replication and then with eventual replication, chemical transmission was accepted as legitimate.
The lesson in all of this is this: There is no time for regret if one passionately and perseveringly pursues ideas.
To read other blogs from the Society for Neuroscience, please return to the main blog here.