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  • Writer's pictureKaylah Holmes

Rose Colored Glasses: First Generation Women in Neuroscience

Hey FemNeuro readers! My name is Angela Griffo, I'm a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s of science in psychology. Currently, I’m working as a Research Specialist in a clinical neuroscience lab in the University of Pittsburgh’s department of Psychiatry. The primary study I work on involves an infusion of intravenous ketamine and how it can be used as a treatment for depression. Ketamine has been known to have rapid-acting antidepressant effects in treatment resistant patients, so we’re investigating ketamine as a treatment of depression in combination with a neurocognitive measure designed to extend the effects of ketamine in patients, since its half-life is so short. We obtain all sorts of interesting data for this study: clinical assessments, cognitive measures, and fMRI data. Unfortunately, we had to halt in-person procedures due to COVID-19, but in the meantime we’ve been pre-processing some really fun Diffusion Tensor Imaging data that’s going to be used for projects in the future. This type of data can generally let us see how ketamine changes the microstructural organization of the brain as it’s metabolized by the body, and how it could potentially alter or improve certain circuitry related to psychopathologies such as depression.

I’m a first generation college student, so that in itself was a challenge. It was very difficult to navigate my academic interests, but I’m an innately curious person and I love to learn, so I knew that going to college was something I was interested in doing. My parents are small business owners in a rural town, and while I fully support their drive and detection to their craft, I decided not to work for the family business and pursue a degree. There was some dissonance involved with this decision, for sure, but ultimately I’m glad I was supported when I decided to stay true to my interests and hopefully will pursue a PhD in clinical psychology or behavioral neuroscience in the future.

I encountered a lot of obstacles in my education experience growing up, and I am still struggling to not internalize these issues every single day. I attribute a lot of these issues to gender biases in the academic setting, which often leads to something women in academia know all too well -- Impostor Syndrome. Growing up, remarks and assumptions received from teachers and classmates inherently made it harder to believe that I was capable of being successful because of who I was. Intelligence is relative, but at the time, I felt like it didn’t fit it. After interactions that I’ve had, I started to feel ashamed to ask for help. It wasn’t until I met some of my strong female mentors in college that I’ve looked up to throughout the years, who made me feel competent and motivated. These women helped validate my academic interests, and saw my career goals as legitimate, which was so refreshing to hear!

I noticed that I was not the only girl struggling with math and science, but the embedded gender biases that exist in the classroom setting create a self-fulfilling prophecy -- girls having generally less positive STEM attitudes, higher anxiety, and lower levels of confidence. It’s also hard to see yourself excelling in science as a child when there’s a lack of representation of women role models. For this reason, we need to help encourage girls to identify with STEM if they show interest. In my personal experience, I really appreciate the professors and teachers I had who took my concerns seriously and helped me become a better student. On the other hand, I also did have a professor who, unprovoked, told me that I should get tested for a learning disability, assuming because I asked too many questions, so that wasn’t fun. 

When I decided that I was going to study psychology, I was met with pushback from a lot of people as to why I wouldn’t want to study something more practical, like “an actual science.” Everyone assumed I wanted to be a therapist, which is a reasonable assumption considering counseling is something you could pursue, but I wanted to run experiments. I wanted to learn about cognition, psychopathology, neuroscience, imaging, data, and integrate those themes in an impactful research question that could possibly help people struggling from clinical diagnoses. For this reason I felt illegitimate in academia for a long time, even though I still held interests in neuroscience, computer science, etc. I realize now that this pushback could have been motivated by, you guessed it, gender biases.

My greatest accomplishment is getting to work on impactful research in clinical neuroscience and maintaining the same goals that I didn’t think were possible only four years ago. I attribute this accomplishment to my mentor in undergrad, who was one of the most kick-ass ladies in research I’ve come to know, who, without judgement, encouraged me to gain experience and build up the credentials I would need to make my goals achievable. My mother was also a huge motivator for me. She always had very real and very honest advice, like “you have to work for what you want.” Encouragement from my women mentors helped me gain the stamina and confidence throughout college to pursue a career in science.

It still feels like I’m looking through rose-colored glasses sometimes because a lot of my coworkers are also women in science, but I only know that was possible because of the women who helped other women obtain these positions. This chain reaction is so beautiful to me -- because I’m working with a relatively diverse group of people. Because of the opportunities that I had, I feel empowered to advocate for diversity in STEM, to encourage people to pursue their interests, because ultimately you are capable, no matter who you are. When I realized I wanted to pursue a career in research, it felt against the grain, like I was rebelling in some way. What it actually was -- was confidence. 

It is so important to seek a support system from friends, family, or mentors. It’s difficult to pursue something when you’re afraid of failure, when you’re not confident in your own abilities, when you feel like an impostor. These premonitions are scary, but can be overcome. Surround yourself with women or people that take you seriously. Find a mentor that can help guide you professionally. Talk about your experiences when you are met with adversity. The chances are that there are a lot of people who have experienced the same thing, and can offer consolation and encouragement. If someone assumes pronouns for a doctor or scientist, the pronoun would most likely be “he,” rather than “she” or “they.” These biases are formed based on the associations we made growing up due to lack of representation. Alas, we are here to dismantle biases and discrimination of any kind, to be an advocate for diversity, and most importantly, for yourself.

I love the field I’m currently in (clinical/cognitive neuroscience) -- it’s what I’ve dreamed of doing. Just over here, chilling, and helping solve the mysteries of the brain! Currently, I have the opportunity of working clinically with patients, which is awesome. I also have the opportunity to learn about some of the tools we use to analyze fMRI imaging data, like Diffusion Tensor Imaging. Imaging and software use a lot of concepts from physics, which in turn, can be really interesting when applied to our brain and its microstructural organization (also metaphysics, so fun to consider those theories, too). So currently, I’m interested in investigating the role of entropy in brain organization using MATLAB software, and how these changes may be indicative of how ketamine works as an antidepressant.

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