Exploring the Personal Side of Science

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A collegiate swim team, uncontrollable diarrhea, an uncle’s drum solo, green Jell-O, and getting lost in the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, may seem like unlikely elements at a Brain Awareness Week event. But not at the annual “Studying the Brain: A Storytelling Event hosted by The Friedman Brain Institute,” which highlights personal stories from Mount Sinai students, fellows, and professors. Five brainy participants stepped out of the lab and classroom and onto the stage of El Barrio’s Artspace PS109 in Manhattan, to share real life events that unexpectedly influenced their scientific journeys. Paula Croxson, assistant professor of neuroscience and psychiatry and the 2018 SfN Science Educator Award recipient, and Casey Lardner, Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience, hosted the BraiNY event.

Phillip Comella, a biomedical sciences Ph.D. student, opened the night with a story about being misdiagnosed with severe hemorrhoids that had the audience crying from laughter. With this diagnosis, he had accepted that he would always have a secret struggle with his symptoms, what he called his Superman-like hidden “superpower,” which often left him running for the restroom in comical scenarios. Years later, while working on a study about teaching machines to diagnose medical conditions, Comella asked for a random dataset to work with. The dataset was about ulcerative colitis—the disease he actually had—which eventually led to a new diagnosis that could be treated and a more regular bathroom schedule, he jokingly bragged. Science led Comella to his own diagnosis and put him in the shoes of a patient struggling with a misdiagnosed or undiagnosed condition.

Empathy was a common theme throughout the night. Grace Mosley, a fourth year M.D.-Ph.D. student, spoke about her experience on the swim team in college. She was doing the backstroke at practice when she knocked heads with a teammate and was diagnosed with a probable concussion. Mosley had severe symptoms such as irrational anger at friends, needing extra time on tests, and an intense feeling of uneasiness when trying to get back in the water for swim practice. While she eventually made a full recovery, being a patient and not knowing if she would ever recover changed her perspective as a scientist. Even though she may understand the symptoms and the mechanisms, she realized will never how her patients are actually feeling.

Angélica Torres-Berrío, a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience, studies “how experiences in life can shape the brain, and, in turn, have a long-lasting impact on stress.” Her interest in stress stems from running through the streets of Bogotá to get to class on time. Usually, she walked in a simple “L” shape. Stressed out and worried about being late one day, she took diagonal streets instead to try and get to class by the shortest route possible. Torres-Berrío never forgot how stress impacted her thinking and has since recreated this day in experiments with mice in a maze.

Torres-Berrío also spoke about her journey into neuroscience. The neuroscience community is small in Colombia, she said, so Torres-Berrío went to Canada to continue her studies and obtain her Ph.D. With almost no support or guidance from her mentor, she was afraid she might not be able to finish her Ph.D. or keep her scholarship and stay in Canada. After a long time in a truly stressful environment, she was finally able to move on to a new mentor and finish her education. “Sometimes, to find your way, you need to get lost,” she remarked.

Other storytellers included Sandhya Chandrasekaran, an M.D.-Ph.D. student in neuroscience, whose experience as a young girl singing at a wedding was ruined by an uncle’s impromptu drum solo because it interfered with how she had rehearsed. The experience taught her the importance of breaking free from structure not only in her life, but in the way she looked at her work.

The night closed with Jacob M. Appel, assistant professor of psychiatry and author, whose father’s job as a psychiatrist and aunt’s strange behavior–including offering him prohibited, non-kosher green Jell-O when he was a child so that he would behave, but never actually giving it to him–inspired him to study psychiatry.

The event program highlighted the importance of humanizing science and making it relevant to those around us, something we strive for at the Dana Foundation. It read: “The power of storytelling is that it makes what we have to say relatable, gives us the ability to appeal to the values of others. As scientists, we can use storytelling to communicate our passion for science, our drive, our successes and failures–to our friends and families, potential donors, study sections, and the public.”

Do you have a brainy story to tell? The organizers of the event encouraged anyone interested in participating to pitch them at sinaistorytellers@gmail.com.

– Ali Chunovic

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