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Understanding Addiction

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Professor Marina Piciotto is the Charles B. G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry and Professor in the Child Study Center, of Neuroscience and of Pharmacology; Deputy Chair for Basic Science Research, Dept. of Psychiatry; Deputy Director, Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale University. Since 2015, she has been editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neuroscience.
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Professor Marina Piciotto is the Charles B. G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry and Professor in the Child Study Center, of Neuroscience and of Pharmacology; Deputy Chair for Basic Science Research, Dept. of Psychiatry; Deputy Director, Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale University. Since 2015, she has been editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neuroscience.

An award-winning neuroscientist, Marina has built her career as a pioneering force in both her field of addiction research and her community as an advocate for science communication. 

Technology Networks' staff writer Adam Tozer interviewed Marina to find out about her career, her work-life balance, the importance of good science communication and what she thinks needs to be done to encourage more women to pursue a STEM career.  

Adam Tozer (AT): Why did you first pursue a career in science?

Professor Marina Picciotto (MP): As a student I always liked science classes, but I didn’t know what a scientist did. So, I didn’t know how to become a scientist. I originally thought I should become a doctor because I didn’t know how else to do science. 

Out of luck, I got an opportunity to work as an intern in a science lab during high school. And once I was in a lab, I knew that I didn’t want to leave. 

After college, I thought about pursuing medical training or doing an MD PhD. However, I realised that would mean a lot of time spent outside the lab. Whereas a science PhD would mean much more lab time, something I thoroughly enjoyed. 

So, it was at that point that I realised that being a scientist was what I wanted to do for a career.

AT: How did you come to study addiction?

 I always knew I liked neuroscience. And I had been studying signal transduction in neurons. I wanted to do a postdoc where I could connect molecules with behaviour. 

I also wanted to gain experience in another country, and my PhD advisor suggested I apply to Jean-Pierre Changeux’s lab in Paris. 

I went there to study how nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, the target of nicotine in cells, contributed to the behaviour of animals. Due to the advent of molecular engineering techniques that enabled the generation of transgenic mice, I could explore the impact of removing nicotinic acetylcholine receptors from neurons in mice, to see how this affected behaviours related to addiction. Meaning I could ask the question, could we tie an individual molecule to the effects of a drug at the level of the receptor, at the level of the cell, at the level of the brain cell circuit and at the level of the complex organism?

AT: Tell us a bit about your career. Were there any challenging times?

 There were many! From the very beginning, more experiments didn’t work than did. In graduate school I had to start over again with my thesis project after 5 years of work because it had resulted in a complete dead end! 

So, I had to start with a brand-new project after investing many years of work. My thesis committee was not happy with me, and I was pretty sure I was not going to get a paper out of my work.

Ultimately though, I got my degree and I got papers from my PhD, and I also gained knowledge that made me much more prepared for a career in science. 

For exampIe, I learned: 

How to make yourself keep going.

How to ask for help and advice, rather than just slogging away without communication. 

How to change gears

And also, to know when to stop a project that isn’t working. 

These lessons were much more important things to learn in preparation for a science career than how to do the experiments that actually did work.

AT: You are a Professor at Yale and also Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Neuroscience. How do you balance work and life? 

Well, I should also reveal that most importantly, I am a Mum. And that having a child has been an essential part of being a good human being and a scientist.

Work-life balance is something that is not easy to manage, but if you can be clear about the things you value then each time you get another opportunity you weigh it in the context of ‘where is it important for me to put my efforts?’. 

For example, since my daughter was born, she has been number one in my life. A close second, are the people in my lab and their work. Followed by my contributions to my department, my school or the neuroscience community. 

So, whenever I get offered an opportunity, and they are often very tempting and could benefit me or my laboratory or my community, I weigh each of these opportunities against the other things that I value. 

For instance, when I took on the Editor-In-Chief position at the Journal of Neuroscience, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to invest time in frequent manuscript reviewing or being an editor for other journals. However, I could reason that I was still benefiting my community by taking on this role.

When I accept invitations to speak or to travel, I accept that I may have to miss things to do with my daughter’s school-life for example. But I am lucky that I am supported by my partner in these cases. 

In the end there is no good answer for how to balance work and life. I just try to be completely present in the place that I am in and I have learned to say no to the things that don’t add satisfaction. 

AT: What do you think needs-to be done to encourage more women to get involved in science and STEM careers?

 I think it’s important to highlight the advantages to women of working in STEM. 

The first advantage of a career in academic science is flexibility. To have the flexibility to organise your experiments and your work-life around the other commitments in your life is a real bonus. You don’t have that flexibility in many other careers. 

The second is interaction. Science is an incredibly social endeavour in which you get to collaborate, work with and learn from many different types of people with different scientific backgrounds and expertise. The ability to learn from different people and negotiate and communicate with different people with different expertise is crucial to advancing a career as a scientist. Although we encourage students with good problem-solving abilities, it’s the students with good soft skills, such as negotiation and communication that are most likely to thrive in science.

AT: How important is communication in Science?

 Good communication is a crucial skill. If you make a new discovery, that’s wonderful. But if you can’t communicate the discovery it’s effectively useless. It’s like a tree falling in the forest with no one being there to hear it.

The ability to communicate clearly to the right audience is not only key to teaching, but also improving the reach of your research. Good science communicators get other scientists interested in their work, which ultimately advances the field and leads to discoveries being made faster. 

This article formed part of Ebook celebrating Women in Science, available to download for free:

Women in Science