Science in Storytelling

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Wednesday night’s Story Collider x braiNY event provided audience members with five stories from five accomplished scientists of the Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, all of whom had participated in a six week storytelling workshop.

The event took place in the charming lower level of El Bario’s Artspace in East Harlem, where brick walls, black curtains, and bright lights alluded to a crowded comedy night. And the storytellers did not disappoint–their recounts and anecdotes poked fun at either themselves or their situations in an endearing and hilarious way, garnering laughter from the audience throughout the night. But the event offered more than just humor; many of the stories took on a more serious tone as the night continued.

Casey Lardner, a budding graduate student in neuroscience, delivered an intimate look into her personal life, when she spoke of her brother’s battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. Albert Wu, assistant professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Medical Education, described his experiences dealing with burn victims who had damaged their optic nerves. At one point, he asked the audience to close their eyes as way of trying to imagine life without vision. These powerful moments throughout the night were reminders that each storyteller was committed to finding answers about the brain functions that had affected people around them.

Family was an important theme throughout the night as well. Some of the speakers referenced immigrant parents as a motivator for their career path, and others referenced family members’ health issues as inspiration to study science and medicine. Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and director of the Mental Health Patient Care Center at the James J. Peters Bronx Veterans Affairs Hospital, explained how her family influenced not her decision to study medicine, but her research capabilities.

Yehuda started off as a brain function stress-tester in rats, but the idea of purposely inducing stress soon began to put a strain on her conscience. As a result, she veered from her track as a neurochemist around the same time she became pregnant with her first child. During this time, she wrote her dissertation and entered the field of psychiatry, where in 1988, she was introduced to a then new diagnosis called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Her experience with stress-testing led her to test hormones in Vietnam War veterans to help legitimize the disorder as stress-related, and preventing it from being categorized as a general mental illness.

Yehuda’s findings of low cortisol levels were, however, the opposite kind of evidence she needed, and, as she lamented, her career took a nosedive. During this time, she became pregnant again, and throughout her maternity leave (two weeks unpaid, she jibed), she was able to spend a lot of time thinking about the issue. She decided that trauma was a different kind of stressor, and she wanted to research this theory by working with Holocaust survivors. Having grown up in a Jewish community, Yehuda knew a lot of friends’ parents who were survivors. She was approved to study their stress hormones, and back in her hometown, she attempted to find subjects for her research.

However, Yehuda found it extremely difficult to persuade Holocaust survivors, who did not know her, to give her their time and personal information. She learned that working with people could only be effective if “they trust you to be dedicated to the truth.” Yehuda hadn’t earned their trust yet, so she turned to someone who had: her father. He was a rabbi in the community, and many of the Holocaust survivors in her community were his pupils. With his help, she gained the trust she needed and found subjects willing to participate in her study. Fast forward a couple years, and she was helping PTSD patients of the Holocaust find treatment in the first ever Holocaust clinic in New York that she helped establish.

The event ended with a feeling of gratitude and admiration from the audience. The stories were moving and motivating, and because of the excellent narrative, the two-hour event flew by. Story Collider was one of the many brain-related events that happened during Brain Awareness Week, in collaboration with braiNY. To learn more about post-traumatic stress disorder, read this Cerebrum article or find more on our website.

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– Celina Sooksatan

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