These scientists are getting inside your head

These women study brain and behavior in humans and beyond
Oct 14, 2016 — 7:00 am EST
S. Patel

Smita Patel has been studying how brain cells break down — or degenerate — at the University of California, San Francisco.

S. Patel

When you are reading the text on this page, it might be easy to forget what’s going on behind the scenes. The cells in your brain are firing messages back and forth millions of times per minute, making your eyes move and your fingers swipe. Other cells process the language you read and help it all make sense.

Science makes Elodie Chabrol smile big.
Science makes Elodie Chabrol smile big.
E. Chabrol

How do we know all that? Because of neuroscience — the study of the brain. Science News for Students recently put out a called for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to send us photos, videos and sound clips. Among our more than 150 responses from 18 countries, we got a bunch of neuroscientists. Check out the zany and brainy things that they do.

Elodie Chabrol

Chabrol didn’t start out big into brains. “I hated neuroscience at [university] and wanted to avoid it,” she says. She was more interested in genetics. But as she studied more science, she got more into brains. Now, she’s a neuroscientist at University College London in England. She’s trying to find cures for epilepsy — a brain disorder that causes seizures.

L. Drogos
Lauren Drogos snaps a selfie — right before she starts studying saliva samples.
L. Drogos

Lauren Drogos

Drogos studies how hormones — chemicals produced in glands and carried through the body in the blood — affect the way we think and behave. She’s a neuroscientist at the University of Calgary in Canada. “I use many different techniques to answer questions about hormones and the brain,” she says. “Because of this, I get work in many different types of labs.” When she’s studying hormones in people’s saliva or blood, she works in a traditional laboratory. When Drogos is studying how her subjects think, she meets them in an office. And when she’s studying their brain activity, she works with large scanners called fMRI machines. (That’s short for functional magnetic resonance imaging.) “I love being able to do many different techniques in my research; it makes every day different and exciting,” she says.

Science sends people around the world for their work. Drogos has her own way of keeping in touch with her friends and colleagues. “One of the perks, and sometimes downsides, of being a scientist is that I have good friends across the entire globe,” she says. “I don’t get to see many of them frequently, so one wall in my office is filled with postcards from them. In some ways, it makes me feel like I get to hang out with all of my best nerdy friends every day!”

S. Ferri
Sarah Ferri with her two best furry friends.
S. Ferri

Sarah Ferri

Autism is a term that describes a set of disorders that interfere with how certain parts of the brain develop. These disorders can affect how an individual interacts with others. Ferri is trying to find out how autism works, and why it tends to affect more boys than girls. She’s a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “We use a mouse model of autism that has genetic mutations similar to those found in individuals with autism,” she says. The mouse is a stand-in for humans in this research. To study the mice, Ferri explains, “we characterize their behavior … and examine the structure and function of their brains.” Like us, she notes, mice are very social creatures.  

Outside of the lab, Ferri loves to dance, shop, bake and do yoga. And she really loves her dogs!

K. Gerecke
Kim Gerecke, right, stands with her two students Sarah Allen (left) and Anna Kolobova (second from left) at a poster describing their work.
K. Gerecke

Kim Gerecke

If you needed another reason to exercise — other than simply staying healthy and fit — Gerecke has a good one. She’s a neuroscientist at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn. Her lab studies how exercise can protect the brain from toxic effects of stress.

Gerecke makes good use of her findings by staying active. “When I’m not teaching or researching neuroscience, I love to hike with my dogs and kayak the cypress lakes and rivers nearby,” she says.

C. Godale
Christin Godale shoots a selfie.
C. Godale

Christin Godale

Godale is just beginning her journey in brain science. She is a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. One day, she hopes to find a better treatment for epilepsy. “We are on the brink of a golden age in neuroscience, and I believe that anything in research is possible to achieve with persistence and passion,” she says.

Graduate school is a full-time job, but outside of the lab, Godale says, “I like to dabble with photography, listen to 70’s music and wear cute shoes.”

Christopher Wood
Georgia Hodes with her daughter Cora.
Christopher Wood

Georgia Hodes

Before she was in science, Hodes preferred the stage. “I was a drama major in college and acted in New York for several years,” she says. Now, Hodes is a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Some mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are linked to the amount of stress people have in their lives. Stress activates the immune system — a collection of cells that helps our bodies fight off infection. Hodes is looking into how all of this is connected. She says, “I explore how the immune system and brain interact to make some individuals more susceptible to stress and stress-related disorders like depression and anxiety.”

Molly Hyer
Yes, that brain Molly Hyer is holding is real!
Terrence Hunter

Molly Hyer

When Hyer was young, she didn’t have a lot of love for icky things. “I never liked rodents or bugs as a kid and thought I wanted to be a therapist,” she says. “In college I learned about neuroscience and was hooked.” Now, she’s a neuroscientist who studies how hormones can change the brain and behavior. She works at the University of Maryland in College Park. She handles mice, rats, frogs and more fearlessly. And she trains her students to do the same. “I love seeing my female students reach that same milestone when they willingly (not always eagerly) put their hand into a barrel of roaches to select their subject for observation but the men in the room refuse to do it,” she says.

Samah Kalakh
Samah Kalakh shows off her winning work.
Wafa Alfadhli

Samah Kalakh

Multiple sclerosis is a disease that attacks the coatings around parts of brain cells. These coatings allow brain cells to send messages at blinding speeds. Without them, messages slow and stop. As a consequence, people with multiple sclerosis can have difficulty moving or walking. Some even end up paralyzed.

Kalakh is trying to find new treatments to help re-form the coatings around these brain cells and get communication flowing again. She’s a graduate student at Kuwait University in Al-khaldiya. Outside of the lab, she says “I am passionate about painting on glass and selling my paintings for different causes.” You can see some of her artwork here.



M. Ludtmann
Marthe Ludtmann uses the microscope at left to look at live cells.
M. Ludtmann

Marthe Ludtmann

Both Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease are disorders that are neurodegenerative — they result from the death of formerly health brain cells. Ludtmann is a neuroscientist at University College London who is working to find out how these disorders occur. “I employ live cell imaging technologies to unravel what goes wrong in those neurodegenerative diseases and how we can stop this from happening,” she says. In her free time, she bakes, runs and likes to do ballet.

Sophie Meekings
Sophie Meekings with her cat, Marlowe.
Sara Monahan

Sophie Meekings

Meekings is also a neuroscientist at University College London. “My research is all about how people control their voice,” she says. “I use fMRI (brain scanning) to see what people's brains are doing when they change their voices (for example, when they have to speak over noise). At the moment I'm working on a study with people who stammer, trying to find out what makes their brains unique.”

Meekings love cats. And axes. Yes, axes. “I volunteer for an outdoor education charity, where I spend a lot of my time fixing axes and teaching children to use them,” she says. “I also take [kids] up mountains and teach firelighting.” 

S. O’Hanlon
Sam O’Hanlon in the lab where she studied neuroscience.
S. O’Hanlon

Sam O’Hanlon

O’Hanlon is the first in her family to have finished a four-year college degree. She didn’t stop there, though. She went on to graduate school to study neuroscience, working with mouse models for autism. Now she teaches online neuroscience classes for the University of Hawaii, Oregon State University and Dakota State University.

Neuroscience didn't just teach her about the brain. It also taught her math skills that she’s use for her new field of research — helping scientists who study bacteria.

Smita Patel (pictured at top)

Patel has been studying neurodegenerative diseases and how to stop them at the University of California in San Francisco. This past September celebrated her 10th year in the lab. In her free time, she says, “I'm a huge sports nut — especially softball, baseball and cricket.”

Christine Sandiego

Sandiego works for Molecular NeuroImaging. It’s a division of a biotechnology company called InviCRO. There, she designs molecules that are radioactive and can be used to study chemical messengers inside the brain. The rest of the time, she loves to dance. “I’m a dance-a-holic,” she says. “I currently dance lyrical and hip hop at a studio, United Rhythms. I also can dance salsa, samba and Argentine tango.”

Listen to Sandiego talk about her work below.

Leah Singh
Leah Singh shows off the results of her research.
Isaac Woods

Leah Singh

Many studies of how people behave involve taking tests. These might be tests for attention or memory, for example. But how do you know if your test is, well, testing the right thing? Ask Singh. She is a graduate student at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. She evaluates behavioral tests that are used on kids to see how well the tests measure what they are supposed to study. “This informs practice and decisions made from scores by letting clinicians know how confident they can be in a kid's test results,” she explains. She may work with kids and testing now, but Singh loves animals. Someday, she says, she wants to own an animal sanctuary.

T. Spires-Jones/University of Edinburgh
Tara Spires-Jones in her lab.
T. Spires-Jones/University of Edinburgh

Tara Spires-Jones

Many scientists have had to present their work to an audience. The experience can be nerve-wracking enough. But Spires-Jones has talked to an even more intimidating listener. Spires-Jones, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, has spoken with royalty! “I presented our work to Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne, when she came to the University to open a new Centre for Dementia Prevention,” she says. (Princess Anne is the daughter of England’s Queen Elizabeth II.) “That’s something I never thought I would do!”

If you enjoyed this series of women in STEM, check out our posts on female astronomers, biologists, biomedical scientists, chemists, ecologists and geologists

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

Alzheimer’s disease     An incurable brain disease that can cause confusion, mood changes and problems with memory, language, behavior and problem solving. No cause or cure is known.

autism     (also known as autism spectrum disorders ) A set of developmental disorders that interfere with how certain parts of the brain develop. Affected regions of the brain control how people behave, interact and communicate with others and the world around them. Autism disorders can range from very mild to very severe. And even a fairly mild form can limit an individual’s ability to interact socially or communicate effectively.

behavior     The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

biomedical     Having to do with medicine and how it interacts with cells or tissues.

cell     The smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Typically too small to see with the naked eye, it consists of watery fluid surrounded by a membrane or wall. Animals are made of anywhere from thousands to trillions of cells, depending on their size. Some organisms, such as yeasts, molds, bacteria and some algae, are composed of only one cell.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O. Chemical can also be an adjective that describes properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

control     A part of an experiment where there is no change from normal conditions. The control is essential to scientific experiments. It shows that any new effect is likely due only to the part of the test that a researcher has altered. For example, if scientists were testing different types of fertilizer in a garden, they would want one section of it to remain unfertilized, as the control. Its area would show how plants in this garden grow under normal conditions. And that give scientists something against which they can compare their experimental data.

dementia     A type of mental disorder caused by disease or injury that causes people to gradually lose all or part of their memory. It may start out temporary and build to a permanent condition where the ability to reason also is impaired.

depression     A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing; they can appear out of nowhere.

disorder     (in medicine) A condition where the body does not work appropriately, leading to what might be viewed as an illness. This term can sometimes be used interchangeably with disease.

engineering     The field of research that uses math and science to solve practical problems.

epilepsy     A neurological disorder characterized by seizures.

family     A taxonomic group consisting of at least one genus of organisms.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory. (in physics) A region in space where certain physical effects operate, such as magnetism (created by a magnetic field), gravity (by a gravitational field) or mass (by a Higgs field).

genetic     Having to do with chromosomes, DNA and the genes contained within DNA. The field of science dealing with these biological instructions is known as genetics. People who work in this field are geneticists.

gland     A cell, a group of cells or an organ that produces and discharges a substance (or “secretion”) for use elsewhere in the body or in a body cavity, or for elimination from the body.

glass     A hard, brittle substance made from silica, a mineral found in sand . Glass usually is transparent and fairly inert (chemically nonreactive). Aquatic organisms called diatoms build their shells with it.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

graduate student     Someone working toward an advanced degree by taking classes and performing research. This work is done after the student has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

hormone     (in zoology and medicine) A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body. (in botany) A chemical that serves as a signaling compound that tells cells of a plant when and how to develop, or when to grow old and die.

immune     Able to ward off a particular infection. Alternatively, this term can mean to show no impacts from a particular poison or process. More generally, the term may signal that something cannot be hurt by a particular drug, disease or chemical.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

infection     A disease that can spread from one organism to another. It’s usually caused by some sort of germ.

major     (in education) A subject that a student chooses as his or her area of focus in college, such as: chemistry, English literature, German, journalism, pre-medicine, electrical engineering or elementary education.

milestone     An important step on the road to stated goal or achievement. The term gets its name from the stone markers that communities used to erect along the side of the road to inform travelers how far they still had to go (in miles) before reaching a town.

molecule     An electrically neutral group of atoms that represents the smallest possible amount of a chemical compound. Molecules can be made of single types of atoms or of different types. For example, the oxygen in the air is made of two oxygen atoms (O2), but water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (H2O).

multiple sclerosis     A degenerative disease of the nervous system, resulting in paralysis. At present there is no known cure.

mutation     (v. mutate) Some change that occurs to a gene in an organism’s DNA. Some mutations occur naturally. Others can be triggered by outside factors, such as pollution, radiation, medicines or something in the diet. A gene with this change is referred to as a mutant.

nerve     A long, delicate fiber that communicates signals across the body of an animal. An animal’s backbone contains many nerves, some of which control the movement of its legs or fins, and some of which convey sensations such as hot, cold, pain.

neuroscience     The field of science that deals with the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Researchers in this field are known as neuroscientists.

neuroscientist     Someone who studies the structure or function of the brain and other parts of the nervous system.

nut     (in biology) The edible seed of a plant, which is usually encased in a hard protective shell. (in construction) A fastener with a threaded hole. They typically are used along with a bolt to securely hold the surfaces of two things together.

online     A term that refers to things that can be found or done on the Internet.

Parkinson’s disease     A disease of the brain and nervous system that causes tremors and affects movement, memory and mood.

radioactive     An adjective that describes unstable elements, such as certain forms (isotopes) of uranium and plutonium. Such elements are said to be unstable because their nucleus sheds energy that is carried away by photons and/or and often one or more subatomic particles. This emission of energy is by a process known as radioactive decay.

rodent     A mammal of the order Rodentia, a group that includes mice, rats, squirrels, guinea pigs, hamsters and porcupines.

scanner     A machine that runs some sort of light (which includes anything from X-rays to infrared energy) over a person or object to get a succession of images. When a computer brings these images together, they can provide a motion picture of something or can offer a three-dimensional view through the target. Such systems are often used to see inside the human body or solid objects without breaching their surface.

seizure     A sudden surge of electrical activity within the brain. Seizures are often a symptom of epilepsy and may cause dramatic spasming of muscles.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

stress     (in biology) A factor, such as unusual temperatures, moisture or pollution, that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance, or stressor, that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative. (in physics) Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

technology     The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry — or the devices, processes and systems that result from those efforts.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.


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