What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
My research is focused on understanding how the human brain, primarily the cerebral cortex, forms and how mistakes in this process lead to neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by intellectual disability.
I appreciate being able to see the “big picture” and relevance of my work. Seeing children with developmental disorders as well as those who are typically developing motivates me to learn more about brain development.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
I was one of those nerdy kids who knew in middle school that I wanted to be a scientist. I was fascinated by the natural world and was curious about many aspects of science, primarily biology. My father was a physician, but I did not want to be a clinician. I wanted to be a scientist.
After taking a developmental biology course, I became captivated by the ability of a small number of cells in the embryo to give rise to an entire organism, made up of hundreds of specialized cells. I wanted to understand how this happens. I was particularly fascinated by how cells could form something as complex as the human brain.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Every result in the lab is something new. We are creating new knowledge.
I also love looking at cells in the microscope. I am still fascinated by the dynamic structure of cells and our ability to grow them in a dish.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
Find an area of research that you are truly excited about. Being a scientist requires self-motivation and passion. It is rewarding but also demanding. Being passionate about what you are studying provides motivation to get through the more difficult parts of your training.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
As an undergraduate, Philippa Claude stimulated my interest in developmental neurobiology research. As a trainee, I was inspired by the classic work of Rita Levi-Montalcini and Victor Hamburger and my mentors, Nancy Ratner and Bob Brackenbury strengthened my conviction that science is fun.
In my independent career, I have benefitted from mentorship and support from Su-Chun Zhang. We have common training in developmental neurobiology, including work in glial biology before it was appreciated. We speak the same language of development.
How do you spend your free time?
Outside, if possible. I love to walk, bike and cross-country ski. Wisconsin, with its lakes and woods, is a great place to do all of these.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
I don’t have internet access at my cabin and never will. A goal is to spend more time there.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
Getting information about all aspects of human stem cells, including policy guidelines and clinical applications.