19 Brain Awareness Week
All month, we have been celebrating the extraordinary neuroscientists who have been featured on Her Royal Science since 2019, including:
Dr Sydney Vita, postdoctoral fellow at Louisiana State University
Dr Travis Hodges, postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia
Morgan Coburn, PhD student at the University of California, Irvine
Dr Marguerite Matthews, Scientific Program Manager within the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
To commemorate Brain Awareness Week 2021, we have decided to release an off-cycle episode featuring neuroscientist Dr Nour Al-muhtasib, postdoctoral fellow at Yale University. I first learned of Dr Al-muhtasib over social media, and was drawn to the candidness with which she speaks about life in academia. In this episode, she spoke with me about the intricacies of being a first-generation graduate student, the research that she’s about to begin in her new lab, and what it was like starting a postdoc just as the COVID pandemic began. She was also very excited to share some of her favourite fun facts about the brain as part of Brain Awareness Week!
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Her Royal Science jingle
Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s interview. Today, we will be chatting with Dr Nour Al-muhtasib, a postdoctoral research fellow at Yale studying cocaine addiction and relapse. She completed her Bachelor's in Biochemistry, followed by her PhD in Pharmacology. You may know her, like I do, from [social media], where she is incredibly honest and transparent about the ups and downs of academia and scientific research. She's an inspiration to me in many ways as a fellow hijabi neuroscientist, and I can't wait to learn more about her. Dr Al-muhtasib, what's your story?
Dr Nour Al-muhtasib: Hi! Thank you so much for having me.
AB: Of course!
NA: I do have your stereotypical ‘loved science forever’ story. I went into college, did biochemistry because that's the kind of science I liked, but I didn't know what I wanted to do after. So, I did the thing where you apply it to a million jobs and you hope you get one call back, and I did! I started a job in a pharmacology lab; that's when I realized what I loved in science as a kid was pharmacology. As a kid, I would ask questions like, ‘How is this medicine working? Why is it helping me feel better? Or why does my stomach hurt when I have food poisoning?’ I was pretty sickly child, so those thoughts crossed my head a lot.
I would ask a lot of questions like, ‘What do you think the cat is thinking when they do that action?’ to my mom; she would just be like, ‘I don't know, but okay!’ (Laughter)
AB: That’s so sweet though!
NA: Yeah! So, I started at the pharmacology lab and realized that's what I was interested in, and I just didn't know the name for it. My mom was a physics teacher, but her highest level [of education] was a Bachelor's and she had taught in the Middle East, so once she came here, she couldn't really teach because it was a completely different language. I didn't really have anyone in my family to look up to for advice or anything like that.
AB: Did that affect your journey at any point? Do you think that if you had someone that you could look up to, things would have been any different and, if so, what do you think would be different?
NA: For sure. I think it would’ve been a lot more helpful to have someone who had already done it, that I could turn to and tell me, ‘Well, this is what you need to apply to, and this is how you need to do it.’ When you're the first person to do something within your family, you don't have that guidance, and that's why we talk about first-generation, because it is a little more of you finding your own way and pushing yourself to ask for help.
AB: Which can be challenging in some ways, depending on how you grew up. Maybe as a high school student, you were totally fine doing things on your own. I know I experienced that when I was doing my PhD; [that] was the first time that I really needed a decent amount of help. And so, you haven't even exercised that muscle of asking, saying ‘Help me!’ Was that the same for you as well?
NA: Yeah, exactly. You're not used to asking for help. It's kind of scary sometimes too, because you don't know exactly who to trust.
AB: Yes! Which is such a strange concept, isn't it? You’d think that within science, everyone's there to help each other out, and progress what we know about ourselves and the world around us, but it's quite of unfortunate that that's not the case.
So, I know that, with COVID, this is a bit of a strange question, but what's a ‘day in the life’ like for you? You’re an electrophysiologist, right?
AB: So, what was [your day] like pre-COVID and what is it like now, if you can speak to that a little bit.
NA: Pre-COVID, it would vary a little bit from day-to-day. I wouldn't do an experiment every day, just because electrophysiology experiments are pretty demanding. There would be days where I make my solutions, prep things for experimental days, make sure everything's clean and ready to go, do surgeries if need be. Then, on the day of the experiment, I’d come in, set up the lab, set up all my equipment, make sure everything's right there when I need it to be, just because we do use animals, and of course we follow all the very specific laws for using the animal, but it has to be really quick once the animal comes into play, both for humane reasons and for the science reasons.
AB: Do you usually do recordings in slice?
NA: Yeah, slice recordings! So, you want to extract the brain, and have it in a slicing solution as quickly as possible. Then, I slice my brain and I wait for a few hours, then start recording. If things work, they work. If they don't, I might wrap it up early... I don’t want to even say, ‘if things work’; I don’t like that phrase. I'm trying to move away from that phrase.
AB: You know, as you were saying it, and I was going to agree, and then I thought, ‘Wait, I think we're kind of broken’ or at least the way that we think about science is very much a binary thing. Like, it was ‘a good science day’ or a ‘bad science day’.
NA: Yeah, and I don't like that so much because it reinforces a certain way of thinking that can start to bleed into other parts of our life, and reinforce other negative ways of thinking.
NA: If my cells don't look good for recording purposes, I'll maybe wrap it up because I'm not going to get the data I need from it today. Might as well not expend energy that I can save for later.
AB: Mmhmm, so that's what it's like when you're in the lab fairly consistently. Has anything changed now, with the pandemic?
NA: Yeah, it's been a little difficult because we do have limited capacity of who's allowed to be in lab. And also, I was just starting in a new lab.
AB: Oh, really? I’m sorry.
NA: Yeah, it's life for a lot of people. For now, it's been a lot of troubleshooting and setting up things, so it's been a little bit more difficult. My schedule is a bit different every week and it varies from day to day. To give a little bit of background about electrophysiology—because I don't think everyone knows it—it's a technique where you record electrical currents from neurons or brain cells, and I particularly use it in brain slices. Once you extract the brain from an animal, you can keep the cells in the brain alive for hours afterwards!
AB: Which is the coolest thing ever.
NA: I know! It's awesome, I love it. I haven't [yet] recorded from the particular region that I want to record, in this lab.
AB: Could you describe a little bit about that project that you're hoping to embark on?
NA: Yeah! I'm looking at cocaine addiction and relapse, and the brain region involved is the VTA, or the ventral tegmental area. It's part of what you traditionally call ‘the reward system’ or ‘the reward area’. I haven't recorded from there before, and I haven't sliced the brain to get that brain region before.
AB: Yeah, because the VTA is quite posterior! What had you been working on before, in terms of brain region?
NA: The striatum, which is very big, first of all. For the striatum, depending where you're recording from or how specific you want to be, you can get, like, 10 slices.
AB: Yeah! It’s funny that you mention that. My partner is an electrophysiologist as well, and he was studying Parkinson's disease, so they were most often doing their recordings within the dorsal lateral striatum. He could mess up three slices and still be fine, and be able to complete a full experiment, whereas I was doing stuff in the anterior hippocampus so I had, I think, three slices on a good day, if I was using one hemisphere. But the VTA? That’s going to be interesting!
NA: Yeah, with the VTA, if you do everything perfectly well, you will get three full slices.
AB: Oh, wow.
NA: No one in the lab had done that before, but luckily some awesome people like Professor Melissa Herman from UNC was doing Zoom meetings with me. She would cut a brain and slice it, and vice versa—I would dissect a brain, slice it, and she would watch and tell me if I'm doing it correctly.
AB: That’s so sweet!
NA: I know. She kept saying, ‘I wish I could teleport you over here, so I could show you in person!’ Instead of just being able to do something over couple days, or a few weeks, because someone's there to watch you, I would sometimes have to send an email, then come back a few days later, and make the change that was said in the email.
I share this just because I think a lot of people are struggling right now, and might feel like they are failing, when it’s not failure. I think it's just what life is right now.
AB: How did you feel when the pandemic first started? Was there a moment where you thought, Oh, my gosh—how am I going to do this postdoc that I just started?
NA: Yeah! It's hard to describe because I also have a grant, so there was this feeling of, I need to do things because I have a grant [agency] to report to. I remember I was not feeling well; I just happened to get a cold, a normal cold, and I was out for a few days, and then we went into lockdown the next week, and my mentor was like, ‘There's no point of you coming back, just stay home,’ which I appreciated.
That's when my sister and family called—they live in California—and they were like, ‘If your lab is closed for the next two months at least, why don't you come out and stay with us? I have three kids; you can help me with my kids!’
There really wasn't a lot to do, and any anything I could do, I could just do there, so I ended up going and staying with them.
AB: That’s awesome!
NA: Yeah, there was some benefit of being able to just pack up my stuff. I took my cat, went to California, and stayed there for a while, until they decided to open up labs again. It kind of worked out for me because I was able to be with family, help my sister [by] teaching my oldest niece math, and really appreciated a little bit of what it meant to be a parent during the pandemic, which was very difficult.
AB: Right! And how old are your nieces and nephews?
NA: 7, 4, and 1.
AB: Oh, wow.
NA: They're all a year older now, but yeah!
AB: God bless your sister!
NA: I know! She works a full-time job, so I'm glad I was able to help and cook and clean. I really don't know how parents do it between work and kids, because they need constant attention when they are around. They need snack breaks, and you have to remind yourself of basic math that you don't use anymore. It was the number line, and, like, I know this; it’s in here somewhere! (Laughter)
AB: (Laughter) You have to sift through years of information to get there!
NA: I know! I just wish they were closer so that I could help out a little more.
AB: Yeah. Kudos to all the parents and parent-like individuals who have been looking after so many people. I'm hoping that they are able to find their supportive community, because I think that's so important. How do you build your supportive community? Especially as a trainee, where working long hours is kind of expected, unfortunately, and it's not the best place to be in if mental health is really important to you. So, how do you go about creating a supportive community?
NA: I think, especially for postdocs, it becomes a little more difficult, not that it's not difficult for grad students, but as a postdoc, you don't come in with a cohort. You often just come in by yourself. You are starting at a different time; it's not like everyone starts the same time, and I’m a little more of a social person, so I would ask lab mates to go out to lunch or dinner. Also, there are postdoc associations sometimes, and they host events that you can be part of. For me, it was just going to those events, asking people hang out, and then over time, it's kind of like [the whole] the neurons that fire together, wire together.
AB: (Laughter) Yes!
NA: You kind of get a sense of the people that you get along with, and you start hanging out more, and I think you realize that those are your people. I find that something that's helpful to help building a community in each lab I've been in.
AB: I'm curious about what role you think your background played into who you are today. That's a new question that I've started asking guests this year. All of the people that I speak to are often very, very different and have different homes that they grew up in. I was born and raised in the States, but moved around a lot, so I think I kind of picked up different things from the different places that I lived in. How about you? What was your family home like and how did it bleed into who you are as a person, and who you are as a scientist?
NA: A lot of different things affected me. I grew up in the DC/Maryland/Virginia area, particularly PG County area, which was a lot more diverse than other places in America, to put it kindly. (Chuckles)
I was lucky enough to have that exposure because of where I grew up. I think that shaped me a lot. I'm really appreciative of that, if that makes sense?
Having gone to elementary school, middle school, high school in areas that were not homogeneous allowed me to have different friend groups and exposed me to a lot of things, I think, maybe people were not exposed to until older. And I think having parents who are immigrants who have had to work really hard to establish themselves also gives one side of me. Also, knowing where they came from, and what their family has had to endure, or is enduring currently, makes me think more about injustices that are out there.
AB: Where are your extended family members right now?
NA: My mom's family is in Syria, and most of my dad's is in Jordan.
AB: How often do they get to go back to their respective homes?
NA: Last time my mom went was right when the war started, and hasn't been able to go back since. For my dad, it’s been a while since he’s been to Jordan, and even longer since he's been to Palestine, just because it's very hard to go to Palestine.
AB: I'm obviously fairly well-versed in the history of that area and all of the horrible things that are taking place there, so I don't want to also re-traumatize you in any way [by discussing this].
NA: No, no, it's fine.
AB: It's a sensitive topic, though, so I do want to recognise that as well.
NA: No, no, it's fine; it's just that if you try to go in as an American citizen but your last name is Palestinian, you are forced to go in as a Palestinian. You're [forced] to make a Palestinian ID card, which is fine, like, I’m Palestinian in origin, but once you go in under a Palestinian ID card, you lose all your rights as an American, and America will not take care of you if anything happens to you. So, that's why it's tricky when you are of Palestinian origin trying to go to Palestine.
AB: Mmm. I’m wondering now, since you’re based in Connecticut, the surroundings are very different, I would imagine.
NA: Yes, within the university.
AB: Yes—is there a bit of a cultural shift that you feel you needed to undergo to [become more accustomed to your surroundings]?
NA: It definitely got less and less diverse the more I got away from PG county, so that was, I guess, shocking, because that was not what I was comfortable with. That's what I meant within the university because, within New Haven, if you go more into the city, it’s not like what the university it looks. It's a lot different.
I think people flock towards each other, and minoritised groups find each other. When you are part of a minoritised group, you feel a little uncomfortable when you are in what is thought to be the majority. Me and you were talking about this previously, about whether I'm seen as a person of colour or as white, and a lot of people do classify me as white.
AB: Interesting. How do you classify yourself? I prefer to base it off of the person themselves; obviously external factors do—no pun intended—colour the way that one might receive you or the way you walk in the world, but how do you perceive yourself?
NA: It's so hard to answer, because my skin colour is white, so if you looked at me, just a part of my skin, you'd say I’m white. But if I am generalizing, in a majority white situation, as opposed to majority people of colour situation—with my scarf, with my name—I'm definitely not seen as white. It's kind of not fitting into both, in a way.
A lot of people will say, ‘Well, Arabs fought to be classified as white under the Census bureau,’ which is true, but I think a lot of that was, if we are able to check white, maybe they’ll treat us better. Which clearly didn't work out. (chuckles)
And another thing is, a lot of people forget that Arab countries were colonised for a long time. Part of colonization had a lot of colorism in it, and that definitely affected how people saw themselves, but that's a whole different thing.
AB: It's such an interesting conversation because, especially, as of the last 10 months or so, many people are having more public conversations about race and how people identify.
To kind of switch back into academics, just a tiny bit, because you were talking about minoritisation, what can senior members of academia and academic research do to be better allies to us, to people who belong to minoritised groups?
NA: One thing is: nominate people for awards. We know that minoritised groups are more than qualified for a lot of these awards yet are often forgotten or are just overlooked, because they're not part of that old boys’ network.
Take on mentees, introduce them to people, so that they become part of that network. In my opinion, these are small, practical ways that we can make changes.
Listen to people when they tell you they have an issue. If there's a problem with a certain PI or mentor, don't give them tenure. It's just that easy, but mentorship isn't really considered for tenure, which is just mind-blowing to me. For example, for me, when I was leaving my old lab, which was a really bad situation, I needed to find a new lab and it was scary because I needed to email these people and tell them not to contact my current person, because I can't have him know that I’m finding a new lab. But what happened is, I had professors who knew I left; what they did [was say], ‘We will contact professors, on your behalf and tell them that we have a postdoc that's looking for a lab and we can vouch for them.’ That's something you can do, for example.
Another [thing was] I had a grant, and I was worried about how I could transfer it; they contacted the training officers themselves and said, ‘tell me what we can do to help this postdoc.’ This was stuff that I, maybe, could have done by myself, but having advocates that were fighting for me who had more of an advanced position, who had those connections, they were able to say something, whereas I was just some random stranger to them.
That's what you can do: advocate for people.
AB: Absolutely; I 100% co-sign on that. That is so true. Make sure that your eyes are not only on what you can get out of a person, but [how] you can actually help them step to the next stone that they need to get to [on their path]. I didn’t know that you went through at bit of a difficult time. I’m sorry to hear that. You're in a much better situation now, right?
NA: Yes, for sure. I was able to get into a better lab.
AB: Good, I'm so happy to hear that. What did you during that time to make sure that you were taking care of your mental health?
NA: When I was in the lab or in the transition period?
AB: When you were trying to find a way out, when things didn't look too great.
NA: I reached out to a professor who I knew cared about postdocs, or at least said he cared, and I also went to the ombudsperson. That's the person you can talk to that's supposed to advocate on your behalf to the university. Obviously, I had my therapist, but on the more actionable path, I reached out to people who can do stuff to help me.
[When things got really bad], they wrote that they are advising me to not go [into the lab], which was important for me to have in writing. Having things in writing is important; sometimes you need someone to tell you, you can't push yourself past this; this is it. Luckily, I had someone who was there to tell me that.
Having good people around you, having a good community that is willing to be there for you, is so vital.
AB: Have you thought about what you would do differently if you knew, at the start of your professional journey, what you know now?
NA: Ask for more help, starting earlier on, whether that means asking more people to read the grants that I'm writing to submit, or just asking for advice. I would make more mentors! I don't think your PI should be your only mentor. That’s nothing against the PI; my PI tells me to make mentors all the time, because he strongly believes that it's important to have multiple mentors. Each one will give you a different aspect of how to grow. Each one will nurture you in different ways.
And just advocate for yourself! That kind of goes back to the awards. Towards the end of my PhD, I was telling people, not asking people, to nominate me for awards. And it's not an ego thing of, I think I deserve every award, but it was more I know I am just as qualified as everyone else, so I'm going to just ask, ‘hey, if you think I’m qualified, I would like you to nominate me for this award.’ If someone thinks you're qualified, they'll be like, ‘yeah, of course.’ And if they don't, they won't nominate you and that's it.
AB: Yup, it doesn't hurt to ask.
AB: I have one last question for you. I was hoping to release this for Brain Awareness Week—I've partnered with the Dana Foundation—and I was wondering if you would like to share a fun fact about the brain, something that still makes you go, ‘that’s so cool.’
NA: ... God, I love the brain; why isn’t one coming faster to me!
I guess the things that I find really cool: how easily the brain gets confused. When you hit yourself, or you bump your foot, you rub that area, and it helps. That’s because the pain and touch nerves are very close to each other. When you touch it, it confuses the brain in so many words, so you don't feel the pain as much.
I also find it really cool that if a person is pregnant and they have a stroke, the baby will shed stem cells to the area to help protect it.
AB: That is amazing. I'd never heard that one before!
NA: Yeah, it's really awesome! I guess it's a little bit selfish on the baby’s inside, because the baby’s like, you’re carrying me! You need to protect me! (Laughter)
Her Royal Science jingle
AB: Thank you for joining us for this episode, made especially for Brain Awareness Week, in partnership with the Dana Foundation.