Creating a Community: Neuroscience, Diversity, and Mental Health
Hey FemNeuro Readers! My name is Kaela and I’m 23. I’m currently studying Cellular & Molecular Medicine. I’m researching Alzheimer’s disease, specifically how it spreads in the brain. The pathology of Alzheimer’s always follows a very specific path and we’re trying to figure out why and how. If we know this we may be able to stop it from spreading and get better outcomes for patients. It’s also important to understand as much about the mechanisms behind diseases as possible! It’s crazy that we still don’t know how this disease moves through our brain, which is why I’m excited to work on it. On the side I run an instagram account, @girlwiththesciencetattoo, to try and spread science to everyone. I think there is a huge barrier between the scientific community and non-scientists. Reporters don’t necessarily understand our publications & scientists are often not great at explaining their research to people without a science background. This leads to a lot of misinformation and dramatization which I think is harmful to everyone. I try to talk about new research being published, fun science facts, and just life as a graduate student - because a lot of people have no idea what we do!
How difficult was it for you to pursue this career?
All the way back in elementary school I used to sob over my math homework and completely gave up on the idea of ever being able to go into science - even though I was fascinated by it. I spent years convinced that I was going to have to give up on what I loved. In high school I worked and worked until I understood it - and managed to turn it into my best class. School often requires persistence and hard work, you don’t have to be naturally good at a subject to eventually master it. More recently I’ve dealt with mental health struggles which reached their peak in my senior year of undergrad. It became difficult for me to work and focus. Thankfully, I finally got help and began feeling much better. I am so grateful that I was able to do so. Today I am infinitely happier than I have been in a long time. I would really encourage anyone who’s struggling to seek help, you deserve to be happy and it is worth it. There’s no shame in asking for help - in any aspect of your life.
How does gender bias play a role in the career path you’ve chosen?
There is a huge disparity between genders, and minority classes in general, within academia. Personally, I don’t see a big difference in the number of female vs male students, however you see the disparity at the faculty level. When I was looking for supervisors it was difficult to find many female professors - everyone I ended up interviewing with was male. Once you get to the higher positions (e.g. professorship) you start to see a disparity, and I was always aware that would be the case. I guess looking for a supervisor for my Master’s was when it became the most obvious though. It is definitely disheartening, and women also have to be more careful in their choices for things like research supervisors. I was very aware of that fact, and paid attention to which supervisors were hiring women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people, etc. My current supervisor is a man, but the lab itself is diverse so I felt comfortable being there. I didn’t want to be in a position where I would be treated differently based on my gender or where something worse could happen.
Was your family supportive in your career choice? What makes you proud of your career choice?
My family has luckily always been supportive. They’ve never doubted me for a second and I’ve always felt fortunate to have them behind me, cheering me on. I’m proud of being where I am right now, it’s crazy to think that I’ve managed to make it to grad school and I’m actively doing science every day. There isn’t really one moment that I’m proud of, but I’m proud of the entire process. I managed to get here despite mental health struggles, and spending my childhood thinking I’d never get here. That means a lot.
What advice do you have for girls who feel discourage from pursuing a career in Neuroscience because of their gender? How should they defend themselves against gender-bias in their school and college careers?
Find people who support you, that was what was most important for me. There are a lot of obstacles through a career in science, so it helps to have a great support system. They don’t have to be in person either - I found a lot of solace and comfort following other scientists on Twitter and Instagram. It was great to see scientists admit their flaws, talk about their lives and their failures and see how diverse the science community can be! I’ve found great value in following scientists of different gender identities, sexual orientations, races, etc. It can be hard when you don’t feel like you see yourself represented in a career - but I promise someone like you exists as a scientist. And if they don’t you can be the first. You can do it. It is difficult to speak up about the bias and discrimination that people from minority groups face, I am certainly not the best at it. But it is something I strive to improve upon, and I’d encourage others to practice as well.
What is your favorite thing to research and/or study about Neuroscience?
My favourite thing about neuroscience is how much we don’t know. The brain is still a giant mystery to all of us and that is so CRAZY. It is inside our head and we can’t figure it out. I get excited about all the new things there is left to learn, and I can’t wait to keep exploring how it works.