By Kelsey Zimmerman
Originally published Fall 2012.
What are the main research interests of your lab?
We study the coordination of actions and habits and how decisions are either sensitive to the relationship between some sort of behavior and the outcome, or are automated and “habitized.” In particular, we look at how decision-making occurs under normal conditions but also under psychopathological conditions like in instances of cocaine exposure or stress hormone exposure. Ultimately, we’d like to figure out why addiction, for example, is characterized by the development of these automated response strategies that are aimed at seeking or taking of drugs. In depression, the idea is that automated response strategies may model some sorts of ruminative processes that occur … and that are quite disabling for people with depression.
You moved to Emory from a position at Yale. What have been the best and worst parts of that move?
The worst part is losing your momentum and having to set up a new lab, because when you’re at an institution for a long time like I was, you learn all of the equipment that you have to use, you know the right person to talk to when something breaks, you know the head of the vivarium and all of the vets, you’re just cruising along- that’s the great thing about being a postdoc. So leaving that was very hard, and I also really liked my colleagues there. But in the same vein, coming here has been fantastic because of the vibrant neuroscience community at Emory. My students are outstanding, and our research environment at Yerkes is fantastic- I couldn’t ask for more.
You’ve been at Emory for about 1.5 years, and this is your first faculty position. What have been the challenges and the perks of setting up your own lab?
I’m the kind of scientist who likes to feel really productive, and I like to run experiments, whereas I think there are some scientists who like to set up experiments and troubleshoot- I’m not one of those scientists. I like to walk into a lab in which all the things that one needs to run an experiment are right there and you can just get going. So setting up the lab has slowed me down in a way that I have not liked… There’s a lot of grant writing too, but I wouldn’t say that was the worst thing because that’s just part of the job and you have to expect that. Again, the best part has been the research environment and becoming part of the Emory neuroscience community.
What is your favorite part of running a behavioral lab?
I’ve really liked behavioral neuroscience since I started working with animals, and I think the best thing is figuring out a clever way to get the animals to talk to us and tell us how they’re deciding between, say, pressing a lever and poking their nose into a nose poke, and telling us how they’re engaging in strategies by which to get food or to get drug reinforcers. I think that a cleverly designed behavioral experiment that really can answer some sort of question without us having to infer anything from the animal’s behavior is outstanding, and to me very reinforcing…no pun intended…
You’ve studied a variety of behaviors in research involving aggression, fear, depression, etc. What drew you so strongly to addiction and habit formation?
That’s a hard question… I guess I like things that are complicated. I mean, decision-making is complicated, right? It’s a question of how do we decide to engage in some behavior over another, and in the case of psychopathology, how do we get stuck in these ruminative loops in which we are obsessed with one particular outcome at the expense of engaging in behaviors that produce other kinds of outcomes. So in the case of drug addiction, how does our brain get so stuck in this loop such that drug-seeking takes over every other behavior in our world? Or in the case of depression, these negative thought loops sort of take over one’s life. So I think these are very complicated questions to try to answer, but they are critical questions for the treatment of these diseases.
Ha, well I probably shouldn’t answer this honestly, but the honest answer is that I did a lot of work in the lab as an undergraduate and then right after my undergraduate degree, and I was a little burned out. So before I went on to graduate school in the neurosciences, which is what I knew I wanted to do, I wanted to take a little bit of a break, and the Beinecke Brothers Memorial Fellowship enabled that. This is a really generous fellowship for folks who want to do post-graduate training or research, and it’s very open-ended. I was able to use that money to support myself during my master’s thesis, and then I was able to take what was left over to graduate school with me. My undergrad mentor was a little disappointed because he thought I was never going to come back, but I did!
Do you feel that your English degree has helped you in your neuroscience career?
Sure, I think one of the biggest challenges in taking the next step beyond conducting a fantastic experiment is then being able to communicate that experiment and your findings in both verbal and written form. I think that’s something that we’re not trained to do as intensively as we are to actually do our experiments, so I think any kind of practice in writing is good. It’s true that I was writing about Hemingway rather than Abl-family kinases, but it still kept that muscle flexing.
What attributes in graduate students would you say are most appealing to mentors and which things can be red flags?
I think that by the time a person goes to grad school it’s probably best if that person has figured out that grad school is not simply an extension of undergrad. You’re here to acquire new skills, to work efficiently, to think and to read, and to relate your findings clearly to your audience. For me, I look for students who are enthusiastic about the work that they’re doing. Also, scientific work in general requires a certain level of organization, so you have to be able to keep your data in some sort of form that can be understood by people. I seek students that are hard-working and focused and thoughtful, and I have not been disappointed at Emory. What are red flags? Ummm… I guess for me a red flag is maybe someone who shows up late all the time, someone who’s very slow to respond to email, someone who maybe is a little bit overly casual. For my lab in particular someone who’s scared of animals—that’s probably not a good thing…
Which 1-2 people have been the most important in shaping your career?
That’s easy- my first two mentors. My first mentor was Klaus Miczek. He is a luminary in the field of aggression research, and he’s really the first person who conferred upon me this idea that in the behavioral neurosciences, we can be just as structured and just as strict as those in the natural sciences by attaching numbers to animal behavior and removing any subjectivity to our experiments. Through those processes we can learn how the brain controls behavior. Some people feel that Klaus is a pretty tough guy to work for, but I have always thought he’s pretty fantastic, and definitely, he’s the reason I am here. Klaus sent me off to work with Jane Taylor, who was my PhD mentor. Jane gave me so much freedom to work and to explore the topics that I wanted to explore; she was also very good about reining me in when I went astray. The thing that I really attribute to Jane is teaching me how to communicate my findings both in an oral presentation and also in written form, and not to sound like a broken record but that is just such a critical skill.
You’ve had a fast-paced and successful career, and you earned a faculty position pretty quickly. What is the most important advice you could give to students who wish to do the same?
Publish. I mean, we’re in an environment right now in which publications are currency, and so I think while you have to work hard and generate good experiments and run your experiments very carefully and rigorously, you also need to be as dogged about publishing your findings. It is easy to sit on a paper’s worth of data forever- it is so easy!- but you can’t. You’ve just gotta get those data out. Also to remember something that I try to tell my students a lot, and that is that you’re going to care about your data more than anyone else in the world, meaning you can’t expect your mentor or your friend or the people who read your papers to get in there and dig through the data to find that golden nugget of interesting science that you discovered. You need to be your own best advocate.