If you couldn’t make it to the Neuroscience Program’s annual retreat weekend this year to pick up a copy of the Central Sulcus’ printed newsletter (retreat edition), you can check out some of the articles here!
For the “Status of Statistics” article, syllabi from the courses described can be downloaded here.
Dr. Tanja Jovanovic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. Her research interests focus on the interaction between neurophysiology, neuroendocrinology, and genetics in traumatized populations. She is the Director of the Grady Trauma Project and also a Co-Investigator in the Human Psychophysiology of Emotion Laboratory at Emory University.
I wanted to start this interview with one of Tanja’s favorite quotes: “Don’t become a mere reporter of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin” by Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov was a Russian physiologist mostly recognized for his work in classical conditioning. Pavlov is also the name of Tanja’s cute collie….stay tuned!
How did you become interested in science and what steps did you take to pursue that interest when you were younger?
I first wanted to be a scientist when I was six or seven years old watching nature shows. I wanted to be the guy in the savanna who watches the animals. Then, as I got older, I decided that life in the savanna was boring most of the time, and, instead, I was going to be the zoologist at the zoo.
Early on, I really wanted to know about vocal communication in animals. Because I was a big animal lover, we would just collect animals, my brother and I. Somebody from the immunological society in Croatia gave me a pregnant mouse. This turned into 20-30 mice very quickly. So, we built this big glass mouse hotel that had little rooms where they could roam around.
Konrad Lorenz was my big hero, and he got me thinking about vocal imprinting. So, I got little guinea pigs. Guinea pigs are precocious, so as soon as they are born they run around and vocalize immediately. I wanted to see if you could force them not to. I made these little sound proof chambers, and I would put the little baby guinea pigs in as soon as they were born. I would feed them, and it was great because they imprinted on me. I mean, they wanted to be around me all the time. It was so super cute!
The experiment I did was to switch chinchilla babies and guinea pig babies because chinchilla babies are also precocial species. The tricky part there is that chinchilla gestation is twice as long as guinea pig gestation period. So, I had to breed my guinea pigs after my chinchilla was already pregnant. How old were you at this point? I was about 15 or 16. How did you know the gestation period of a chinchilla? Well, I read about it, she says nonchalantly. A chinchilla was hard to get in Croatia. So, my brother and I took a train to Slovenia to a big expo type thing for chinchillas and rabbits. I had found someone who had a female chinchilla. The downshot to all of this is that the chinchilla never had babies. So, either he tricked me and didn’t really sell me a pregnant chinchilla or she could have maybe not gotten pregnant after he bred her.
Then, when I started as an undergraduate at Oklahoma Christian, Regina Sullivan was at the University of Oklahoma. She was doing olfactory imprinting. So, I tried to mimic everything she did. There is no graduate school [at Oklahoma Christian], but I had professors who would give me keys to a lab. I would buy mice and guinea pigs at the pet store, and I would feed them and take care of them. I built a little odor preference chamber. It was a radial arm maze that I made out of, probably milk cartons, and I would just use a stopwatch to measure how quickly they went into each arm. That was officially my very first publication. It was this tiny tiny magazine that published this little experiment. I was just beyond myself that I wrote this paper. Today, I frequently talk to Regina and she is very supportive of my research, so I feel I have come full circle.
When new graduate students join the lab, one of the first things you say is that you would support a decision to have children in graduate school. This is really a progressive perspective, and you seem to generally emphasize work-life balance. Can you tell me more about this?
I think that to be really satisfied and fulfilled with what you are doing, you really do have to have things that are important to you outside of work. That will make you a more productive scientist because you will be more satisfied with your life.
Specifically talking about family issues, this is something I feel very strongly about, probably because I think we are still not there- where it is considered acceptable to dedicate enough time to your family. There is a lot of lip service paid to that without people really truly believing that you can, in fact, be a dedicated, outstanding scientist AND be a dedicated outstanding parent. I think the danger with women is that there is an assumption that, if you get into a position where you have to choose between parenting and science, you will choose parenting. I think there is a concern that you are not going to seem serious or committed to your career development. So, the side effect of that is it is hard for women to discuss family issues with senior advisors or mentors.
It was very hard for me to tell my mentor that I was pregnant, and it was REALLY hard for me to tell him that I was pregnant AGAIN. The first one could just be a hobby but the second one- now this was really going to suck up a lot of my time. So, what I have learned is that you can do it well, you just have to be organized about it. I don’t think everyone needs to have children. I don’t think it is a key to success or anything like that, but I think a lot of people do want to but feel like they have to compromise or postpone it. It is important to communicate that you don’t have to and that it is perfectly doable. I like to talk about that. It’s a very hard conversation to begin from the student’s perspective, so I just like to open that door so that people feel comfortable when they have that conversation.
This applies to general work life balance issues. I don’t expect people to be in the lab 24/7. Unless I have a deadline, I don’t work that much on weekends. Most of my weekends are family time and me time, and I don’t feel guilty about that. Science is such a hard endeavor. You are going to get rejected so many times, you have to have an underlying joy in what you do to persevere through that. I think that [not having a joy for your work] is a bigger danger of people dropping out of science than having a family.
What would you be doing if you were not an academic researcher?
I wanted to be a dog breeder, but that was always planned to be my hobby on the side. I thought I could still do it when I got Tesla, but she turned out to not be full breed. Tesla’s mom had an affair with someone in the forest. I had never had a collie before, so I kept thinking, the gene expression for the long head- when does that happen? Tesla just never got it. When she was 10 months old, the breeder called me and told me they had found out she was actually only 50% collie. Then, they said I could get the pick of the litter for the next one. Pavlov was tested, and I have all his genetic paperwork. He is full collie. But I will probably neuter him. If I got a third one and I bred them then there would be puppies and chaos! So, I’ve decided that this will be part of my retirement plan.
What would be a place you would go for the weekend, a place you’d go for a week, and a place you’d go for a month?
For a weekend, I like busy bustling things that I couldn’t do for longer than 72 hours. So, like Manhattan is really good for these short bursts of these dynamic, stimulating events that would be exhausting if you were there for too long. But for short-term, it is a tremendously energizing place to be and absorb the energy. For a week, I would do, maybe, Napa Valley. I’d like to do a tour of vineyards or something like that. In my mind, if I had a month, I think I would read a book for three days, and then write something, like a mini-sabbatical. I would probably write an opinion piece about science. I would like to have a sequestered sort of place – very tropical and relatively remote. It would have to be a month, not any longer. It’s all I could do of being by myself in an isolated destination. So, for that I would do Greece or the Caribbean, somewhere warm and nice where I could just be in flip-flops all day near the water.
If you could send a note to your former graduate school self, what would it say?
I had lots of times in grad school where I didn’t know what I was going to do- lots and lots of times! My advisor was very hands-off, and he wanted his students to work independently. Unless I had something to meet about, my advisor and I would not meet and if I wasn’t working, I didn’t have anything to talk about, so it was a vicious cycle of nothing getting done. I watched a whole lot of TV in that year!
I think the world of him, but I think I would have intervened earlier with myself. For a long time, I didn’t know what I was going to do for my dissertation, even though now it seems like I was meant to do cross fostering in monkeys all along. I think my message would be, even when you think you are being unproductive and spinning your wheels and doing nothing, you are still on the right trajectory. Uh, can we put this on our quote wall? Tanja giggles.
Where do you see the lab in ten years, and if you had unlimited funding, what experiment would you do?
As you know, my absolute love is developmental research. So what I really want on the developmental side is to have this longitudinal program where we start following women during gestation and we have information on this child from conception essentially to birth, to early development, pubertal development, and adolescence. In ten years we can be well on our way to having this longitudinal cohort. I like the idea of sensitive periods and critical windows for intervention. What I would really like to do also is start thinking about innovative interventions. I don’t really like most of our interventions. I don’t like psychotherapy as an intervention. I don’t like the idea of a kid taking a pill for the rest of his life. I would like to train the brain to be more effective and efficient and heal itself. I would develop really high tech innovative interventions that you can do while watching changes in the brain. I would actually have them in the scanner so we can see what is being activated and doing this at different ages. That is the ultimate goal- some kind of prevention- but knowing when and what is still where we are right now.
You were born abroad; can you tell us more about your early life?
This is a very interesting story in that I think about my grandparents. They [paternal grandparents] were from a very small rural place in Georgia, very strict southern Baptists. They had a son who goes off to Georgia Tech. He wanted to be a chemical engineer. He was 20 years old and decided he wanted to do an internship abroad. So, he went to Yugoslavia and worked at an oil refinery, and, being a southern Baptist, he found the only Baptist church there. So, he met my mother there. At the end of the 6-month study abroad from Georgia Tech, he was married and he had decided he was going to quit school and become a missionary. I just think how they [her paternal grandparents] must have gone nuts!
My dad wanted to go into the mission field. So, they [her mother and father] went to a theological seminary in Switzerland. My brother and I were born there. Then, when I was five, we moved to the states. My dad went to a seminary in Louisville and got a PhD in theology. Then, my parents were appointed to go back to Yugoslavia as missionaries, so we went back.
Growing up in a communist country was normal for me then. Now, in hindsight, it seems weird. For example, there was an induction ceremony into the communist party when you were 7, when you get your red star. It was indoctrination. So, when you look at it now it seems a bit shocking, but back then it was a thing to celebrate, “Yay, you’re now part of the communist party.”
Although Yugoslavia was politically atheist, my family was very religious. My upbringing was that there is only one way to live. There was only God’s way and no other way, so never stray from this path; there was a fear of veering off. It took me a long time to realize that that is not really true. If there is a man-made GPS navigation system that could redirect you if you make a wrong turn, then any spiritual being that you would believe in should be able to do the same. I now think there are many different ways to get to the same place in life. So, never be afraid of making the wrong turn. So, even if you are standing there deliberating, you’ll come back to the right place. You can always correct back. You can spend an entire year watching TV and still be okay!
It was a star-studded Friday afternoon in Whitehead Auditorium as the best and brightest of Emory Neuroscience came together to celebrate at the 4th Annual NS Golgi Awards. With almost everyone dressed in their best, the 96 degrees outside felt cool in comparison to the sizzling crowd.
Eighty-three nominations were received for the few exalted honors. With such a multitude of worthy candidates, the air was thick with suspense prior to the ceremony. Ice-cold beers soothed the nerves and the heat. Schmoozing and boozing abounded as nominees and their entourages waited with bated breath to learn who would win the coveted Golgi Plaques in 2016.
It was an awards show like no other. Using a proliferation of embarrassing photos, hosts Brendan O’Flaherty and Erica Akhter provided both witty banter and a deep social commentary while maintaining—dare I say it—absolute humility and professionalism. The mentors or protégés of the 9 awardees delivered touching speeches (and in Desirée DeLeon’s case, a charango performance) expounding on the virtues of their respective winners. Eyes were moistened. Hugs were plentiful. In a pool of astounding candidates, there was no doubt that all awards were hard-won and well deserved.
Following the ceremony, guests gathered to enjoy hors d’oeuvres, lots of classy beverages, and the sheer impressiveness that is Emory Neuroscience. In addition to our 13 awardees, it should be noted that students received over 46 internal awards, 18 national grants, and published over 40 papers in 2015. It was indeed a year worth celebrating!!
2016 Golgi Award Winners
Outstanding Scientific Achievement: Lauren DePoy Outstanding Early Achievement: Elizabeth Hinton Scientific Outreach: Anzar Abbas University Service: Daniel Curry Leadership: Daniel curry Excellence in Teaching: Kathryn MacPherson Excellence in Mentorship: Michelle Giddens GIN Faculty of the Year: Mar Sanchez GIN Service Award: Arielle Valdez GIN Exemplary Lecturer: Sam Sober
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions on your recent publication for The Central Sulcus, James. And congratulations! Science is a high impact journal.
Thank you very much!
Describe your experience submitting a paper to Science. Compared to other journals, how did their process differ, for better or worse?
It’s extreme science writing. The Science format is terrifyingly short –about 4 pages, or 3 pages without figures. Every line has to convey an enormously vital piece of information. And I had to be confident in every single aspect of the paper – first of all, because it was going to be reviewed by the presiding world experts in my field, but second, because a paper that gets published at that level gets a lot of scientific scrutiny afterward. Plus, I was constantly being reminded about the 95% rejection rate at each step of the process. At the beginning, I was convinced that the most I would get out of submitting would be some expert reviews of my manuscript.
This paper appears to be the culmination of your thesis work. What does it feel like to have years of toil condensed down to four pages?
It was a lot of pressure. There are literally individual sentences that represent more than a year of work. Discussions that could have gone on for pages were condensed to five words. But I ended up loving the short format, actually. It taught me to be essentialist and to write a better story.
Your paper, titled “Oxytocin dependent consolation behavior in rodents” uses the pair-bonding behavior of prairie voles as a model for consolation behavior. Would you describe yourself as more of a prairie or meadow vole?
Would you ever lie to a reporter?
Interesting. In this study, one partner of a pair-bonded prairie vole couple was removed from the home cage to experience stress via shock or no shock, then returned to the cage to “demonstrate” an amount of anxiety and distress-like behavior, while the other partner “observed” the returned partner. When was the last time you cried?
That must have been difficult for you. Were you pair-bonded with any rodents who were available for licking and grooming (“allogrooming”) consolation?
I had my wife with me, but to be honest we focused more on hugging rather than licking and hairstyling.
I ask because in your paper, allogrooming was interpreted as an affiliative form of contact. When the demonstrator experienced the shock condition and was returned to their partner, the time then spent allogrooming increased. This appears to have two possible causes: the observer initiating allogrooming to comfort a distressed demonstrating partner, or the demonstrator soliciting comforting touch to ease its distress. How did you determine that it was indeed the former and not the latter?
This is a very insightful and delicate question. In fact, we don’t know for certain whether the stressed partners solicit grooming from the observers. However, we do know that consolation is not just a response to a stimulus or a signal – observers experience vicarious anxiety and stress in the presence of the stressed demonstrator, and have brain activation consistent with vicarious pain. We also know that observers only console individuals they are familiar with, which wouldn’t be expected if they’re just trying to get the stressed individual to stop doing something they don’t like. Observers are having physiological, behavioral and neural responses consistent with an empathetic response.
The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) showed significantly higher levels of FOS-positive cells in observers exposed to a stressed partner. When an oxytocin receptor inhibitor is injected into the ACC of observers before the consolation test, the increase in partner-directed grooming was abolished. Tell me, James, why doesn’t my mother love me?
You postulate that oxytocin signaling within the anterior cingulate might modulate consolation through “physiological, emotional, and or behavioral responses.” Would you expound on that, because obviously Science wasn’t going to give you the space to?
This is one of those points where five words replaced a paragraph. Basically, we observed that blockade of oxytocin receptor signaling in the ACC, or throughout the brain, completely prevented the observer’s consoling response. However, we don’t really know if the treatment prevented the observer from noticing the partner’s distress, prevented them from “feeling” it or “caring” about it, or directly blocked their motivation or ability to mount a prosocial response. Separating out those different possibilities would have required a lot more experiments, which would all have been very interesting but I wanted to graduate.
Consolation behavior could be considered empathy-based. You might already be aware, certain professions are associated with higher rates of psychopathy, a diagnosis frequently characterized by a lack of empathy. Please comment on the likely functionality of CEO’s and Lawyer’s anterior cingulate cortices.
This is really fascinating. Scott Lilienfeldin the Psychology Department does a lot of research on the “successful psychopath.” A lot of professions require people to suppress their empathy and emotional responses in order to be successful, which is easier if you have lower empathy in the first place. Surgeon is a classic example – they need to suppress their natural emotional response in order to cut into a patient, a technique they call “cognitive reappraisal.” A CEO that is sensitive to the situations and emotions of the thousands of employees below them might be great as a boss, but he or she won’t necessarily be great at transferring wealth into the hands of shareholders, which is the CEO’s real job. So, psychopaths may be naturally better at these jobs, or having these jobs makes you a little more psychopathic, or both.
A quick shot of intranasal oxytocin, or an AAV overexpressing oxytocin receptors in the ACC, might make these people nicer to be around – but probably worse at their jobs.
Could oxytocin receptor antagonist injections to the ACC be a model for psychopathy? And if so, could it explain my mother’s behavior?
I honestly think this is one of the more exciting possibilities for this research. The primary defining characteristic of psychopathy is a lack of empathy for others. By learning more about the biological mechanisms that guide empathy, we can learn more about how they can go wrong in disorders like psychopathy, and possibly how to treat them.
Do you remember a particularly entertaining run of your experiment?
Near the end of my experiments, Kerry Ressler left for Harvard, taking all the equipment I had been using with him. I absolutely had to run a few more experiments that required a fear conditioning chamber, so I cobbled a conditioning chamber together from random parts he left behind. Then I literally had to have someone stand outside the testing room with a hand timer, play tones from YouTube, and flip a switch to deliver shocks.
You conclude your paper by proposing that consolation behavior in prairie voles indicates that consolation doesn’t require advanced cognitive capacities. Could it also be the case that scientists have underestimated the cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals?
My coauthor, Elissar Andari (also my wife), will be very happy to hear that you asked that! She criticized that part of the manuscript as saying, “voles are too dumb to have cognitive empathy.” When I wrote that, I was actually addressing a longstanding theory in animal psychology that suggested that consoling responses were only observed in “large brained” species because they had to be sophisticated enough to understand the situation and mental state of the distressed animal. It is not currently thought that “small brained” rodents have that level of sophistication, but other experiments on rescuing behavior in rats (and even in ants!) may soon turn that assumption on its head. Coauthor Frans de Waal also just published a book, “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?”, where he argues that science has a long, misguided history of judging animal intelligence based on their ability to understand and solve human-like problems.
How might we request a correction to your “acknowledgments” section so that it thanks me personally for assisting with your microscope needs?
Oh. Well. This is awkward. I just remembered, I suddenly have somewhere I need to be.
Thank you again for your time, James and congratulations on your recent success!
For the past two years, I’ve lived in a small town in Northern China. The area is known for coal production, pollution, and particularly delicious vinegar. I lived and worked at Shanxi Agricultural University, the only agricultural university in China actually located in a rural area. My town, Taigu, was so small that most people had never heard of it before and assumed that I lived in and was mispronouncing Thailand.
I taught English classes to mostly graduate students and some undergrads, and had a lot of time on my hands for badminton and majiang.* During the holidays– we had four months off a year– I took overnight trains out of my province and traveled across China as well as other countries in Asia.
Taigu was isolated. It was so small and unimportant that sometimes people tried to prevent me from getting off the train at my stop because they couldn’t imagine I would want to go there. My town had six foreigners, all Oberlin graduates teaching English, and we were all neighbors located in the center of campus. We were actually part of the school tour, and our houses were constantly being photographed for both their traditional architecture as well as the foreign teachers they contained.
I was sent to Taigu on a fellowship from the Oberlin Shansi Memorial Association, which was founded in 1908 as a direct result of the Boxer Rebellion. My job was to increase understanding between Asia and the US through teaching English, studying Chinese, and blogging about the experience, with the long-term goal of avoiding more Boxer Rebellions. At the time of writing, we have had a complete success in this goal.
You may be wondering to yourself what kind of lab work I did during this time, or how this relates to my interest in neuroscience. It doesn’t, and I didn’t do any lab work, except for one day spent hulling genetically modified millet and another visiting the entomologist lab to ogle the horrific diversity of monsters insects that had been captured by students (I feel it is important to mention here that students in China do not get to choose their majors, and if I had been saddled with “catching centipedes” as a major, I probably would not have made it through higher education). I also supplemented my $500 a month salary by correcting the grammar of scientific essays about mango peels and speciation of shrubberies.
Before moving to China, I majored in neuroscience at Oberlin College and did research involving estrogen, LH, Alzheimer’s Disease, and schizophrenia. My PI had me in the lab up until graduation day, and she probably would have asked me to come in that day had she been able to find me. Ten days after graduation I was in China, looking forward to seeing what life as a non-scientist was like. One month in and I was ready to be back in lab, and one year after that I was preparing to apply to graduate school.
After two years away from home, all I really wanted in a school was for it to be located next to my grandparents’ house. Emory did not fit that description. In fact, I think I went to the website at least five times before considering applying, immediately exiting out upon seeing the word ‘Atlanta.’ On the sixth time, irritated that my hopes and desires had once again led me to Emory, I idly clicked on the application link. There, at the top, was a little notice saying that the application was free if I submitted it before Halloween.
Did I mention that I was making $500 a month and traveling the world in my spare time? Did you know that taking the GRE abroad costs even more money than in the US? In my head I weighed the two factors, living in Atlanta versus no application fee. Eventually, deciding I had nothing to lose, especially because applying didn’t mean attending and as the first application it was totally just a practice application anyway, I went all in.
Our two month winter break began in January, and I went home for the first time during my fellowship. During that time I was a bridesmaid in a wedding, met my new nephew, celebrated Spring Festival, hung out with my wonderful grandparents, and interviewed at Emory.
It was a beautiful day– perfectly sunny and in the high 40s– and everyone kept apologizing for the weather. The students were suspiciously laid-back and happy, and the faculty actually seemed to know some of their names. The word ‘collaboration’ was thrown around, and people actually meant it. The worst thing I could get people to complain about the program was Atlanta traffic. That’s it– that’s the only downside of being a neuroscientist at Emory. Even the outsides of the buildings were shiny (after living in a city that got regular dust-storms, I notice these things). As I was driven back to the airport, I remember looking at the houses we passed and wondering if I was going to live in one of them someday and how I was going to break the news to my grandparents.
I was accepted two days before returning to China. I didn’t have a phone that worked in the US, so I got the message by email. I decided to play it cool and wait an entire week before accepting my acceptance, during which I looked up the school colors and bought an Emory t-shirt.
Come spring in Taigu, when the dust storms were overtaking the campus and the students had run out of excuses for missing class and were telling me they couldn’t make it because they had “something to do,” I started searching craigslist for my perfect Atlanta apartment and my perfect Atlanta life. I looked up student groups and labs and waited breathlessly to be assigned a neurobuddy (Hi, James!).
I came back to the US on July 24th, and on August 15th I drove my entire life to Atlanta, and I have not looked back. It’s been really wonderful to meet you all.
*Incidentally, if anyone is interested in playing badminton or majiang, please give me a call.
Dr. Joseph Manns is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience and Animal Behavior Division, and a member of the training faculty in the Neuroscience Program.
Why did you switch from studying the human hippocampus in the Squire lab to studying the rodent hippocampus in the Eichenbaum lab?
Apparently, there are some legal issues with putting wires into people’s brains without proper licensure.
When new people join the lab, you make it clear that we are a memory lab that happens to use electrophysiology. Why choose this methodology?
True answer: Back when we were both still in grad school, I asked Beth Buffalo why she was switching to electrophysiology, and she had a really good answer. Unfortunately, I now don’t remember what her answer was.
What advice do you have for graduate students in their first couple years?
Ask yourself what would make the modern academic life worth it and then do that.
If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently and what decisions would you make again?
The other career paths that I considered were “professional basketball player” and “jazz pianist”. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at basketball and don’t know how to play the piano. So, if I went back in time, I probably would have picked “academic” again.
As a professor and a mentor, you’ve spent a lot of time teaching your students, but what, if anything, have you learned from them?
I’ve learned that they are paying attention a lot more often than you think they are.
Aspiring scientists seldom ask about starting a family. As a faculty member with a 2 year old son, what advice do you have on starting family?
Sleep deprivation makes you dumber.
You’ve mentored PhD students, MD/PhD students, and pre-med undergraduate students. Based on your interactions, what do you believe are important considerations for choosing between these 3 paths?
All three are probably bad decisions if something else would make you equally happy.
Let’s say I just bought a pork shoulder. How do I make it taste yummy?
225 degrees + hickory smoke + sugary/peppery rub + REALLY long time = taste of candied bacon.
If you could sit down and talk with anyone who is dead or alive, who would it be and what would you talk about?
Steve Jobs. My question: why does the program “iTunesHelper.exe” always seem to be running on my computer when I don’t use iTunes or any other Apple products? It’s really annoying.