The UMB Post[doc]
This past Saturday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day. As we live through a pandemic, life feels like it is in a suspended reality. Allergies that were a mere annoyance last season can evoke health scares now. The uncertainty about job prospects, travel plans, life events, etc., has added unimaginable stress to our everyday lives. It is all the more critical for us to take a moment and check-in with ourselves - our mental health, and support our family, friends, and communities.
In this issue of The UMB Post[doc], the articles revolve around the topic of mental health - the science around it, the resources available at UMB, and insights from experts and alumni.
Thanks for reading!
The UMB Post[doc]
How are you feeling today?
Sometimes this is a daunting question. Sometimes we just want to breeze over it and get on with our day. We want to ignore the hard questions or sweep that bad feeling under the carpet. If we keep on ignoring that we feel bad and put that feeling of malaise down to being a phase of life or a busy period, we can end up ignoring some important signals that all is not well in life.
Do you know that the UMB Wellness hub exists? It has a lot of resources that can help us retune our thinking to be more aware of our personal wellness. The Wellness Hub supports University of Maryland Baltimore students and postdoctoral fellows in pursuing self-awareness, professional and personal development, and academic-life balance through a variety of workshops, lectures, and resources. They focus on eight dimensions of wellness which we will review together. (I also found an extra one, so that makes nine!)
So, grab a cup of tea/coffee, and let’s spend a little time together doing a wellness self-audit. In fact, if you are finding it hard, finish your cup of tea and have a rest. Look at a different aspect each day this week but don’t be hard on yourself.
[Disclaimer: I do not claim to have these categories in balance and am not writing from that perspective! Let’s figure this out together!]
1) Physical Wellness: Recognize your need for physical activity, healthy foods, and sleep.
This includes whether we can maintain a healthy weight, eat good, nutritionally balanced meals, and get enough exercise (about thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise, three to five times a week). We should also be thinking about whether we sleep enough (seven to ten hours a day), avoid drugs, smoking (including vaping), and excessive alcohol (two to three units a day for women, three to four units for men). Physical wellness also includes how we look after our bodies. Do you use a seatbelt and sunscreen when needed? Does your body heal quickly, and do you seek professional medical advice when you aren’t well? Have you been wearing your face mask?
2) Spiritual and Ethical Wellness: Search for your sense of purpose and meaning in life.
Spiritual and ethical wellness concerns how you see the world and how you relate to other people. Ask yourself whether you view life as a gift that should be nurtured, and in turn whether you feel sorrow for those who suffer, and try to help. Do you engage in caring and goodwill without expecting anything in return? Are you working for peace in your relationships and community? It concerns how you interact with the world; how much time have you spent reflecting on nature this week, and have you considered what impact you will make on the world? It’s about considering what you believe, what you value, and who you want to be. Importantly, it’s about consistency; Are your beliefs consistent with your behaviors? Essentially, do you practice what you preach?
3) Social Wellness: Develop a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support system.
Consider your interactions when you meet new people. Do you make a good impression? Are you honest and easy to get on with? Are you a good listener and good at considering the needs of others? Do you think about how what you say might be perceived by others? Is there someone you can share your most personal feelings with? During this COVID-19 season, we have also faced a race crisis. Do you enjoy interacting with people that are different from you? Is your friendship circle diverse or do they all look like/get paid like/ live like you?
4) Emotional Wellness: Create satisfying relationships and cope effectively with life
This may be the category we first think of when we consider wellbeing. Although it’s an obvious category, its easily overlooked. Consider how you look at life’s events- do you view them objectively or interpret them personally? Can you appropriately express your feelings, manage your anger well, and talk through your problems with others when you are upset? How well can you interpret and understand your emotions? Are you a stable, emotionally well-adjusted person? How easily can you say this phrase: “I feel good about myself and feel others like me for me.”
Gosh, this is tough. *takes a big sip of tea* Alright, we are halfway.
5) Cultural Wellness: Embrace the richness of culture
This one seems fun. It involves being aware of our own background and recognizing the richness in other cultures. Of course, the battle of different cultures has caused so much unrest across the world and throughout the ages. Being culturally well involves striving to understand and accept differences in other cultures and this can include nationality, sexual orientation, age, disability, and religious diversity. We should be willing to learn about and coexist with other cultures.
6) Intellectual Wellness: Maintain an active mind by exploring interests, expanding knowledge, skills, and creativity.
Maybe this is an easy one for us, we are academics after all! Or maybe it’s hard to enjoy anything intellectually stimulating after a day of lab meetings, Western blots, and data analysis... Intellectual wellness is something that can help us stave off old age and keep our brains healthy. Ask yourself; am I interested in learning new things? Think about the things you enjoy doing. Intellectual wellness involves keeping your mind active with reading, puzzles, games, and hobbies. Am I getting enough intellectual stimulation from these things? Am I happy with the amount and variety I read? Think about TV programs, social media content, etc. that you consume - is it educational and enriching? Maybe an important issue as we face the election is "Do I keep up with current affairs and can I see both sides of an issue?" or "Do I make informed decisions?"
7) Financial Wellness: Be mindful of planning current and future financial situations
This aspect of wellness may not have been the first one we listed but we are all aware of how finances can affect our lives. Consider where your paycheck goes - Do you spend less than you earn? Do you pay bills on time? Maybe COVID-19 already answered this one for you: Are you prepared for sudden financial changes? Being financially well doesn’t mean being rich but understanding one’s finances and spending. It means not having an out of balance desire for riches and material possessions. Do you have a budget and manage your credit score? How’s your retirement plan looking?
8) Environmental Wellness: Occupy pleasant, stimulating environments
This aspect of well-being covers both the world and our niche in it. Do you think it’s important to conserve natural resources? Do you try to limit your plastics and disposables? When we think of our personal environment the questions range from the quality of our access to modern utilities (electric, water, toilet, Wi-Fi, no rats) to how well we can express our personality in our living space. Perhaps a big one for Baltimore is whether we feel safe in our living environment. It also involves how well we feel accepted as part of our community. We can also apply this to the lab which can sometimes feel like our living space!
9) Occupational Wellness: Experience growth, personal satisfaction, and enrichment from your job
As postdocs, this may be an aspect of wellness that gets us down. We are constantly thinking about how to manage time well, volunteer and serve, and develop skills to achieve our career goals. Occupational wellness is about enjoying our career and getting the most out of it. We try to work effectively with others, be punctual and dependable, whilst also searching for opportunities to learn new skills.
It's obvious from surveying these different aspects of wellness that being off-kilter in one area can affect several other aspects of life. Being stressed about finances for instance can affect how well we sleep, how well we concentrate and soon have a snowballing effect that will lead to feeling down in the dumps. It is easy to see that trying to keep on top of all these aspects of wellness can make a big overall difference to our health and wellbeing. It could be easy to become overwhelmed with the demands for a perfectly well-balanced life but remember, we are still in training, we still have much to learn, and will probably never be perfectly balanced with all these things.
The UMB Wellness Hub has several useful resources and information. Our focus this issue is on mental health awareness, and the Wellness Hub has organized several events that are relevant during this season. Check them out here. Some of the information about wellness was adapted from this survey. Why not check it out and see whether you can identify an area of wellness to work on.
Keep yourself well, and seek help when you need it.
This month’s theme for The UMB Post[doc] is mental health. In last month’s issue, Tra-my Hoang wrote an article titled “The Stress Doesn’t End for Postdocs,” touching on the nature of postdoc mental health and that the ‘old’ problems of a graduate student continue on for postdoctoral researchers. The article highlighted that a large proportion of postdocs report languishing due to lack of fulfillment or feelings of stagnation and have a high prevalence of depression, stress, and anxiety.
These reported mental health issues are of particular concern as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates multiple issues of postdoc life, which has added to uncertainty and feelings of being unsettled. People, in general, are experiencing the strain: a May report found that one-third of Americans have experienced high levels of psychological distress during the COVID-19 outbreak. Two CDC reports have reported enhanced mental health issues due to COVID-19 stress. Moreover, a June study of faculty, staff, and postdocs at Washington University in St. Louis reported a 21 percent rise in work demand in postdocs. In this study, individuals below the age of forty reported a greater number of family/home stressors and saw markedly poorer mental health with a higher frequency of stress about childcare, homeschooling, and access to food/supplies. Thus, postdocs may be faced with different challenges than junior or more senior colleagues.
A recent September survey of 7,670 postdocs from around the globe asked how individuals had been impacted by the pandemic. In particular, job and economic impacts were identified as points of impact. Sixty-one percent reported that the pandemic has affected career prospects with another 25 percent being uncertain on whether or not their prospects had been affected specifically by the outbreak. Additionally, 13 percent of postdocs identified the pandemic as the reason for the loss of either a postdoc or post-postdoc job offer, with another 21 percent still unsure whether the pandemic or other factors were the reason. Region-specific reports illustrated the profound impacts of the pandemic on researchers with over one-third of South American researchers reporting job losses, whereas North and Central American and European postdocs were proportionally less affected at 11-12 percent job loss. Further, 40 percent and 45 percent of respondents cited the economic impact of COVID-19 and lack of jobs in their field, respectively, as major challenges to career progression.
In the general population, job insecurities due to the pandemic have been tied to greater depressive symptoms, whereas specific concern over financial uncertainty due to job insecurity was related to heightened anxiety. Twenty-five percent of participants sampled reported moderate to severe anxiety and depressive symptoms, in comparison to a 2017 US survey finding 2.7 percent of adults showing generalized anxiety and 6.8 percent showing depression. Job insecurity itself has been associated with depressive symptoms, potentially mediated through hopelessness, a key risk factor of depression.
This sense of uncertainty and helplessness can lead to burnout and promote poor mental health. In a study of medical residents, general uncertainty from the challenges of resident life produces stress and corresponds to lower resilience, and subsequent depression and burnout. Further, burnout prevalence among medical students has been reported to be as high as 45 percent in medical students and up to 60 percent in general medical professionals due to chronic stress, which is likely similar for postdocs.
Burnout itself can be viewed quite negatively. With mental health issues on the rise, it is especially important that an extra effort be made to dispel the stigma surrounding mental illness and sensitize everyone to mental health, in general, to ensure people get the help that they need. A recent study outlined that burnout is stigmatized in academic and industrial contexts and that individuals who are already burnt out are at particular risk for additional negative mental health effects of stigmatization. This burnout can exacerbate other mental health issues, such as anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, or substance abuse. Furthermore, even among medical students who receive training in mental health issues, personal experience is still likelier to lower stigmatization of mental illness.
It can be difficult for researchers and people in general to understand mental health issues. We often look for easy to understand and clear explanations. However, most mental disorders are emotional disorders, and it can be difficult to understand emotions. Further, individual differences in emotional tendencies are particularly problematic for understanding and describing emotions. Simply put, emotions have no definitive structure but are instead an amalgam of messy neural connections that were good enough to provide selective advantages in specific contexts, and getting concrete answers that apply to everyone can be difficult.
What change in perspective can help us to destigmatize mental health and to accept them as understandable and natural reactions?
One useful perspective comes from evolutionary medicine, which examines how natural selection has shaped emotional mechanisms that underlie depression, anxiety, and general emotional functioning. For instance, most humans have the capacity for low-mood, and depression is highly conserved among the global population with a lifetime prevalence of 10-20 percent. Evolutionary medicine posits that low-mood provided Darwinian fitness advantages depending on particular scenarios and environments our ancestors faced, and emotions are not maladaptive unless they do not match an appropriate situation. In this framework, basic emotions exist as they are because organisms faced significant adaptive challenges that selected for particular emotional reactions. Negative and uncomfortable feelings have value in some contexts. For instance, people who are unable to feel pain usually die before adulthood. Similarly, low-mood and anxiety likely have repeatedly had value or they likely would not be conserved. In actions of goal pursuit, an important feature of postdoc life, low-mood may provide adaptive significance by disrupting over-investment of effort for goals that no longer provide a net fitness benefit, and persistence might be met with further disruption by the psychological state of depression. In situations of loss, low-mood may serve to prevent future calamities. It has long been known that shown that a sense of uncontrollable failure in the face of problems that cannot be solved can induce cognitive/emotional states that resemble depression, and accompanied by the behavioral pattern of “learned helplessness”. Further, a failure to obtain goals, to maintain a sense of purpose, or maintain self-esteem leads to a withdrawal from life and reduces feelings of anxiety. However, a desire to re-engage with life can increase anxiety while decreasing depression. To a postdoc facing significant career uncertainty or financial strain, it may be perfectly appropriate to vacillate between depressed or anxious feelings.
A key takeaway from this perspective on emotional and mental health is that the individuals are not problematic per se, but instead the problem lies with the environment the which an individual finds themselves. Thus, one avenue for alleviating mental health is to create change in the environment and a second is to personally handle symptoms as they arise. In current circumstances, there are still many routes within the academic environment, and culture can be used to minimize pain while maintaining productivity; many of which were detailed in our last month’s issue of The UMB Post[doc].
An article outlining the impact of job and financial concerns related to COVID-19 advocated for employer mindfulness regarding the stress of job and financial insecurity, and to try to minimize these feelings for employees or instill hope where possible.
Additionally, Harvard Health Services has some simple, but useful, tips for managing feelings during the pandemic.
As mentioned in last month’s issue, if you need counseling, please see the UMB Employee Assistance Program (EAP) website. Additionally, if you are seeking counseling outside of a university system, there are telemedicine-based services that connect you with licensed providers.
During this mental health awareness month, we are in conversation with Dr. Todd Gould, MD, a professor in the UMB Department of Psychiatry. Dr. Gould obtained his MD degree from the University of Virginia and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Laboratory of Molecular Pathophysiology and Experimental Therapeutics. Dr. Gould’s laboratory performs preclinical research investigating the pathophysiology of mood disorders and the mechanisms of action of mood stabilizers and antidepressants. We discussed his work and how he was drawn to this field of study, as well as his perspectives on the state of mental health research.
Q: What does your lab study?
TG: Broadly speaking, I study mood disorders, which primarily include depression, bipolar disorder, dysthymia, and other, lesser-known mood disorders, such as seasonal affective disorder and postpartum depression. More narrowly, I am interested in antidepressant mechanisms and discovering both how antidepressants that currently exist work and discovering new antidepressant mechanisms. Even more narrowly, I am focused on rapid-acting antidepressant drugs, which is a class of molecules, the prototype being the anesthetic ketamine, which rather than taking weeks or even sometimes months in some patients to exert their clinical effects, can take effect in a matter of hours
Q: What was your path to your current position and why did you want to study these topics?
TG: I attended medical school and during the course of my medical training I became interested in psychiatric diseases. I remember in 3rd-year medical school, which is the year where you are typically doing rotations in different specialties, I had my required rotation in psychiatry and I went to the student bookstore, and I picked up what I thought to be the authoritative book on psychiatric illness. This was the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4th edition). I paid for that and I got home. I started reading it and I realized there was absolutely nothing about the biology of these illnesses that determined a diagnosis. I had always been interested in neuroscience and pharmacology, and during the course of my clinical training in a state mental hospital, I was exposed to patients with schizophrenia and severe depression, and bipolar mania. Those clinical experiences really reinforced my biological or academic interest in disease.
I finished up medical school and very different from almost all, if not all, of my colleagues, instead of doing internship and residency, I did a postdoctoral fellowship. That was at the intramural program at the NIMH in Bethesda, MD. I got to work for about five years, and five years later I put my head up and was fortunate that I was competitive for a faculty position and I ended up here at UMB. That was about thirteen years ago. I started off studying a continuation of what I had studied during my postdoc, which was the pharmacology of lithium salts, which are used to treat bipolar mania and bipolar depression, and refractory depression. At some point maybe six or seven years ago, I transitioned just a small part of my laboratory to studying the mechanism of action of low doses of the anesthetic (and abused drug) ketamine as an antidepressant, which led to the study of a ketamine metabolite that maintains the antidepressant actions of ketamine but lacks most worrisome side effects, which was published in Nature in 2016. This began a process where we have very recently received Investigational New Drug (IND) approval from the FDA for the ketamine metabolite, and this work is now culminating in a Phase I human clinical study to begin next month and Phase II studies in treatment-resistant depression being planned for the future.
Q: What are the real needs in mental health research right now?
TG: The real need is new treatment approaches, whether that is behavioral approaches or diagnostic approaches, or pharmacological treatment approaches. We really aren’t doing a good job, and for the most part, we are not treating psychiatric illness very much differently than we were decades ago. I think the field is in the process of going through a reevaluation of how we think about these diseases and how successful we have been... I like to think we have important leads, for example with ketamine [Editor's note: Ketamine works very differently from other antidepressants in that it often acts rapidly, within hours rather than weeks, in treating refractory patients with depression]. We can look back…decades ago when we were treating depression with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) and tricyclic antidepressants, both of which have a tremendous side effect burden. That was improved with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). I like to think we can make the same big leap with understanding how ketamine works as an antidepressant.
Beyond that, there are very few, if any, treatments that have emerged from decades of research on the biology of psychiatric illness. I think we really need to reevaluate how we conceptualize illnesses. Going back to what I said about DSM IV, now DSM V, these are not biologically based diagnoses…We have to take a step back and think about…the lack of success we’ve seen with the models for depression or schizophrenia and think about whether we should be focusing more on synaptic and molecular models rather than in vivo behavioral models.
Q: What is your opinion on the use of preclinical animal rodent models for these complex human phenomena?
TG: Yeah, it’s a tough question. My lab, more than anything else, is a behavioral pharmacology laboratory. But if you take a step back and ask the question about how successful we’ve been as a field in discovering and developing new treatments, we haven’t been successful at all. That strongly argues that different approaches should be taken, that we’re barking up the wrong tree. Just because something has been done for years or decades doesn’t mean it is the right approach. We really need new people, trainees, students, postdocs, to come in and think about the field entirely differently. You always hear that it’s a good idea to read the literature and go to meetings and talk to people. Well, maybe it’s better to take a step back and forget everything you learned because maybe all of it is wrong. …To advance, we really need outside-of-the-mainstream thinking.
Q: How do you see preclinical work supporting clinical work?
TG: Even though technology in humans is changing at a rapid pace, there are still a lot of things that we can’t do in humans, and that gap can be filled by preclinical research. I think it is important though, to make sure you’re asking the right questions, and when you do translational studies, that you’re asking them in such a way that they are directly transferable.
Q: How do you think working in academia as students, postdocs, or even at the PI level, impacts mental health?
TG: Well, I am not a practicing clinician, so I can’t address that from a clinician’s point of view. I would just say that the most important thing is to enjoy what you’re doing, and this career is too all-encompassing and time-consuming to engage in if you don’t enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy the process, then it is too difficult to keep up with everything and to write the grants and so forth. Usually, if you really enjoy the process then everything else is tolerable, but if you don’t enjoy the process of science, it can be a really difficult career to have.
Q: How do you promote mental wellness in your own lab with your own group – regularly or during COVID specifically?
TG: I try to set an example of enjoying what I do and being passionate about the research, and giving trainees the flexibility to take their research in the direction that is most interesting to them on different levels…I tried to create an environment, even though we are mostly isolated in our daily activities now, to bring everyone together at least once a week, even if we don’t have a formal topic on the agenda, just to see how everything is going and to see everyone since we’re all on Zoom/Webex. It has been important for me personally to maintain these interactions.
Q: Are there any resources you would recommend for people in the UMB community that are interested in learning about mental health and mental health research?
TG: NIMH has a website with a lot of good information, that would be one suggestion. A second suggestion would be to attend seminars. There is a lot of neuroscience at UMB and a lot of neuroscience that is focused on psychiatric illness. This is an opportunity to attend a lot of talks, journal clubs, dissertations proposals, or defenses, or in better times, invited outside talks and [lectures] from prominent individuals in the broader neuroscience community.
Q: Any final thoughts?
TG: It is important to enjoy what you’re doing and if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, then make changes so that you are getting the most fulfillment possible out of your career.
This month, we interviewed Georgia Rogers, PhD, an alumnus of UMB and currently the Program Manager for the Program in Neuroscience (PIN) in the UMB School of Medicine. Here, she shares with us her “non-traditional” career path, her take on non-academic jobs, and her perspectives on mental health. She has many wonderful and useful pieces of advice that any postdoc would find valuable.
What is your current job and what does that entail?
GR: I am the Program Manager for the Program in Neuroscience, a PhD granting graduate program which is under the Graduate Program in Life Sciences umbrella. While one of the most visible things I do is recruit new students into the program, just as important is supporting all of the current graduate students that are in the program now. Truthfully, my job is to meet the needs of students in the Program from the point of their initial inquiry about the Program, throughout their graduate school journey, and even beyond graduation as they work towards achieving their career goals.
I act as an intermediary between faculty and students, scheduling many events that lead to the enhancement of students’ educational experiences... If I only scheduled meetings all day, I would not find this position very fulfilling but the relationships I have developed with prospective, current, and past students as well as faculty and staff here, make all the difference. It is extremely rewarding – and continuously rewarding! - to help a student find their path and watch their successes unfold along their journey all while hearing about all of the latest developments in the exciting field of neuroscience.
You were a postdoc here at UMB and have since transitioned out of the “traditional academic scientist” career. Can you tell us about your career path and how you got to your current role?
My career path has been particularly non-linear. I graduated from UMBC with a BS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. [After this], I taught middle school science (amongst other subjects), [and] I did this for six years in Baltimore City and genuinely loved the experience. Both as part of my training before I began teaching and again, as a teacher, I spent my summers completing internships in different laboratories so that I could take the real-world science into the classroom and introduce my students to a different kind of research each year. These were at-risk students in Baltimore that barely had a notion of what the scientific method was before I got to them and had them participating in international conferences to discuss their research findings a relatively short time later (within two years of starting there). All-in-all I completed seven of these internships. The last two were in labs that focused on neuroscience – the area in which I would eventually choose to pursue my PhD.
While leaving the teaching field was a difficult decision, I had questions that I thought I could only find the answers to by pursuing a PhD. However, while I had (and have!) a genuine curiosity about the science and the inner workings of the brain, I knew that becoming a PI was not my goal from the start. When I applied, I was very motivated to join a lab studying learning and memory or perhaps one focusing on schizophrenia research. I actually ended up joining a lab that worked on sensory biology where I eventually did my thesis on an animal model of autism. While I finished within five years, I also got married and had my first son during graduate school. I remember my mom bringing my son, who was about nine months old at the time, to Davidge Hall while I publicly defended my thesis. Little did I know, as I was describing the hallmarks of autism to the audience that a developmental pediatrician would use the same terms to describe my son to me about a year later. When we first received the diagnosis, I was working as a postdoc – in the same lab but on a different project. I thought that I would be able to get him [in] the interventional therapies he needed while carrying on with lab work and my career path but I recall sitting in a meeting with his “team” of specialists from the county that painted [a] picture of the sort of special education he would need for the foreseeable future. That alone convinced me I had to shift gears and focus solely on my child’s health and learning needs. This led me to leave my postdoc position and spend the next six years researching and then shuttling my older son to at least five different kinds of interventional therapies for autism – all while having a second child (who after testing was confirmed as “neurotypical”).
While many would potentially feel differently, I do not regret my decision at all. I can see the progress my son has made and I am proud to say that he is in a school with typical peers with very little accommodations and I know he would not be able to do the things he is doing without all of the support he received from the age of two on. The support I honestly could not have provided while still working full time. I am thankful that I had the financial freedom to make this choice as many families with children on the spectrum cannot do so.
Eventually, as my son transitioned from intensive therapies into elementary school, I allowed myself to consider returning to the workforce. When the position of Program Manager for PIN opened up, it seemed a perfect combination of serving a student population (reminiscent of my school teaching days) while still keeping abreast of new developments in neuroscience (appealing to the side of me that chose to pursue the PhD in the first place). This position truly marries these two parts of me and I think that is where I derive most of my motivation to do the best job I can do in this role.
What parts of your graduate and postdoc training do you still find useful? In other words, how has your training prepared you for your job, if at all?
I feel that my Ph.D. and postdoc training has prepared me not only for this job but for any job. Honestly, what I learned in higher education can really lend itself to essentially any situation in life. While there are a million different details and facts that you pick up while working on your PhD and postdoc training, what you truly learn is the ability to think critically and to systematically solve problems. There is not a single occupation or situation in life that cannot benefit from a person being able to objectively analyze whatever the task at hand/goal may be and move forward from there. Therefore, I find that my training has been highly useful and I apply that training in much of what I do every day – at work, in the community, and at home.
There is a stigma regarding PhDs who choose a career that is not related to academic research. What are your thoughts and do you have any advice for postdocs who are considering a non-academic career?
My understanding is that this stigma is fading away more and more every day – which is a wonderful thing because the possibilities of what you can do with a PhD are so diverse. In the past, people really liked to pigeonhole career choices into academia or “other” but there are so many viable choices for making a career in the science field – industry, government, policy, consulting, biotech, administration. It is not feasible for everyone that graduates with a PhD to run their own laboratory, but neither is it accurate to assume that all PhD grads and postdocs want to do so. My advice is for each individual to follow their interests and their strengths and by doing so, they will find where they belong. I truly believe that following a path expected of you without your passion truly guiding you in that direction will not advance the field and definitely won’t lead to any sense of job or even personal satisfaction.
The theme of this month’s newsletter issue is mental health. What are your thoughts on mental health as it relates to postdocs? You can discuss this based on your time as a postdoc and/or from your perspective in your current role.
I think that mental health is crucial especially in today’s world for all people. As someone who is part of the support system for our graduate students in PIN, I see a number of students that come into my office at some point or another in some state of emotional distress. I’m sure this happens regularly with postdocs as well. Bouts of imposter syndrome, constant uncertainty of their timeline, and when they will be able to graduate/move on to the next step, wondering if they will ever be able to “get this experiment to work” – these are issues that everyone in the sciences has dealt with. And often! But it doesn’t feel that way when you yourself are experiencing them.
When I see someone truly struggling with their mental health, I am thankful for and proud of the many services that are available to students and postdocs here at UMB and am quick to rely on the professionals that are able to assist with those cases. For some reason, people view seeking out mental health as a sign of weakness but the opposite is true - it takes enormous strength to be able to look at yourself objectively and determine that “I need help.” I think that mentally resilient people do not only include those that have never had to seek out professional help but also include all that have done so and have consequently equipped themselves with an armory of tools to help them combat unhealthy thoughts when they creep in.
Comparing a “traditional” academic career and a non-academic career, how do they differ in terms of stressors/mental health triggers?
Regardless of career path, there will be stressors and mental health triggers that can affect any individual in today’s world. They say that “comparison is the thief of joy” and for someone in the sciences, it is easy to get caught up in comparing your career accomplishments to others’. Keeping up with the latest posts on Twitter/social media makes it effortless to continue making comparisons. Who has more publications? More grants? Who just got promoted?
For someone who has chosen a career outside of academia, the comparisons may seem even harsher as clearly, publications and grant funds do not pile up. But success can be measured with many different kinds of spoons. Being able to find purpose in your work (whatever it may be) and putting forth the effort to do a job you can be proud of is a more fitting measure of success to me.
From your point of view, what are some causes of stress for postdocs, and what are some ways postdocs/PIs/institutions can alleviate/address these problems?
Many of the stressors that postdocs face are similar to what graduate students face – frustrating projects, long hours, low pay – but with the added element that postdocs are expected to demonstrate expertise and to produce high-quality work in a relatively short period of time. Because of the long hours, postdocs may not set as much time to be able to recharge or destress, leading to a snowball effect in terms of mental health issues.
One source of stress for postdocs is failing to acknowledge the small successes they achieve. It is important to set small manageable goals and work through them. Many find it hard to stay positive and motivated because they focus on some gargantuan task in front of them (paper/grant/potential employment opportunity). Taking consistent and successive steps towards a bigger goal – and celebrating those wins – will help postdocs gain perspective on their own achievements.
One thing that an institution can do to help with alleviating stressors for post-docs is by providing a sense of community for them – something that Renee [Cockerham] and Jenn [Aumiller] do an amazing job of at UMB. A mutual bond of understanding the unique stressors that your colleagues face – and offering a mental and physical space for this to occur - goes a long way to fostering a positive mental attitude in trainees. Of course, social functions and events can only help further this positivity and cultivate that sense of community. Especially events featuring Renee’s crazy themes!
What are some of your favorite ways to de-stress?
Personally, spending time outside and preferably in nature is my preferred method of de-stressing. This could mean taking a walk in the neighborhood, a hike in the woods, biking, playing tennis, gardening, fishing, kayaking – the activity doesn’t matter as much as just being able to be outside breathing in the fresh air. Even better if I can do these activities with my family! A lot of de-stressing for me also has to do with mindfulness and being focused on being grateful for what you have (and not what you do not) – a strategy I speak to my own children about often. Finally, taking the time for self-care is essential. People make time for the things that are important to them but always put activities that foster their own happiness on the back burner due to guilt. Making your own mental health a priority that you put effort into bettering is worth the time it takes! You and everyone around you will thank you for it.
Imposter Syndrome is the persistent fear and false belief of being incapable or unworthy of success or potential despite noticeable accomplishments suggesting the contrary. It is not recognized as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but it is an acknowledged psychological pattern of behavior. An estimated 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives. Imposter syndrome can result in low self-efficacy and self-denial that prevents individuals from maximizing strengths and pursuing goals. Low self-esteem is the most impairing factor followed by a fear of failure or success. Individuals with imposter syndrome incorrectly attribute their success to luck or interpret it as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.
A study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin proposes that imposter syndrome is more pervasive in racial minority groups and contributes to higher levels of mental distress. Individuals who are underrepresented and marginalized due to their socio-economic backgrounds are proposed to be prominently affected by imposter syndrome, which could subsequently impact their career development. A study conducted by Vergauwe et. al. has shown that lacking confidence in one’s own abilities could have an impairing effect on the career development process. Career planning is one of the most influential aspects of successful career development and it is most affected by the consequences of imposter feelings. Studies have shown that individuals with imposter syndrome demonstrate higher continuance commitment because they do not seek better alternatives, even if they are unsatisfied in their current position. Individuals with imposter syndrome often don’t have a strategy or plan for their career as they undermine their capability and therewith any related job opportunities. A person suffering from imposter syndrome strives to protect their image as a high performer in public (observable) however in reality they can have decreased motivation towards higher career goals (non-observable).
A high correlation is usually observed between imposter feelings and a fear of failure in students. If students fail to take personal credit for their achievements, they can feel luck played a role in their success, and fear failing the next time; the fear of failure grows and self-esteem decreases. This might have a negative impact on their ability to plan a career. Imposter feelings are negatively related to research self-efficacy which is an important factor for successful university careers. In the field of science, success is fickle. Only 7 percent of papers submitted to top journals like Science and Nature will be published. This highlights just how difficult it is to get recognition in this field. Indeed, for scientists, failure is inevitable, particularly in a lab environment where even the smallest change in the environment can have a detrimental impact on results. Some days, experiments may work perfectly, yielding publication-worthy data. On other days, nothing will work, and most people will instinctively blame themselves. This might have a negative impact on work hope that correlates positively with career planning, career decision-making self-efficacy, and vocational identity. The ability to plan a career, make career-relevant decisions, and gain confidence are important indicators of career adaptability which play an important role in various work and career outcomes (e.g., better salaries, higher job positions, and career satisfaction). The feelings of imposter syndrome can be overcome by talking about it with best friends and colleagues, having a mentor that can combat negative self-talk, believing in oneself, separating feelings from facts, attributing success truthfully, keeping a list of own achievements, and seeking out professional counseling.
October 22nd, Thursday, 4 - 5:15 pm | DAC Diversity Speaker Series
Speaker: Dr. Clint Smith
Topic: History Reconsidered
Dr. Clint Smith is an accomplished writer and poet. He has used his literary skills to craft numerous essays, books, and scholarly articles addressing the complex issues of racial diversity and how our experiences in the same world are very different just based on the color of our skin. His essays have been published in leading magazines such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic to name a few. Learn more about Dr. Smith by clicking here. Do check out his very powerful TED talks on "How to Raise a Black Son in America" and "The Danger of Silence". See you at the event!
October 28th, Wednesday, 1- 3 pm | Image Processing Workshop
Speaker: Dr. Ru-Ching Hsia
Topic: Learn the Basic Concepts of Using ImageJ for Analysis
Hsia is an Associate Professor and Director at the Electron Microscopy Core Imaging Facility at UMB. In this workshop, she will aim to cover some basic concepts important to understanding image analysis such as dynamic range, pixel value, etc., before diving into image analysis of confocal and electron microscopy images. Keep your laptops/computers close by to follow along. If you would like your images analyzed during the workshop, reach out to Dr. Hsia at email@example.com
Please check your inbox for emails with more information and registration links for these events and more!
Angela C. B. Trude, PhD
Angela Trude earned her PhD in Nutrition from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2018 and is a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Growth and Nutrition in the laboratory of Dr. Maureen M. Black. Recently, she is a PI in two research grants: one is a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the American Heart Association, which aims to examine the temporal associations of sleep, physical activity, and diet behaviors on obesity and cardiometabolic risks among low-income African American girls in Baltimore. This work builds upon her current research investigating determinants of diet and physical activity to prevent adolescent obesity and enhances it by adding training in sleep mentored by Dr. Emerson Wickwire in the Department of Psychology.
Her second project is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Healthy Eating Research Program, which assesses low-income families' online food purchasing behaviors to inform policies targeting expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in online grocery services. In addition, she received two awards from the American Society for Nutrition in 2019: Postdoctoral Research Award Competition Finalist, and Emerging Leaders in Nutrition Science Poster Competition.
Her recent work has been published in the journal of Maternal & Child Nutrition investigating the longitudinal association between maternal anxiety and toddler diet quality and in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health (in press) examining the mitigating effects of responsive caregiving and learning opportunities during preschool ages on the association of early adversities on adolescent IQ in two middle-income countries. Furthermore, she is very committed to teaching and mentoring. In 2019, she became a visiting professor at the Federal University of Pelotas sponsored by the Brazilian Ministry of Education (CAPES), she has mentored 2 medical students during their summer research program and is currently mentoring a UMB MPH student in the Global Health Program.
David Martin, PhD
Dr. Martin is a postdoctoral fellow at the UMB School of Medicine, Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology, in the laboratory of Dr. Donna Calu. His research focuses on how different intake patterns of fentanyl, a μ-opioid agonist, alter economic demand for fentanyl, and how 5-HT2A receptor stimulation affects the economic demand for fentanyl. His studies suggest that the same economic demand parameters that increase following fentanyl experience are decreased by acute activation of the 5-HT2A receptor. His work provides preliminary evidence that this receptor warrants further study as a potentially useful target in addiction pharmacotherapy. These findings have been published in Addiction Biology. in 2020. In addition, he is part of another recently published study (Front. in Behavioral Neuroscience.), to determine whether bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) receptor 1 (CRFR1) signaling drives incubation of opioid craving in opioid-dependent and non-dependent rats. This study provides evidence of the importance of BNST CRFR1 signaling for driving cue-reinforced opioid seeking after periods of forced abstinence and extends our understanding of this system in driving specific facets of opioid incubation.
When Harry Potter hits the ground after encountering a Dementor for the first time in his life, Professor Lupin throws a bar of chocolate on his lap and says, “Eat this, you will feel better.” This excerpt from the popular children’s Harry Potter series intrigued me when I first read it. How could eating chocolate make one feel better after their encounter with a creature that was described to suck out the happiness from one’s soul?
The wizarding world of Harry Potter follows several scenes where the mood-enhancing properties of chocolate are detailed. Chocolate was often used therapeutically by the Wizard School Healer - Madam Pomfrey. JKRowling- the author of the Harry Potter series, did have scientific backing to her fictional segments because chocolate releases endorphins that have been shown to make people feel happy. So, can we resort to chocolate therapy for depression and anxiety? Cinema and TV shows always portray a tub of ice cream (often Rocky Road flavor!) as the instant outcome of heartbreaks (after perhaps physical outbursts!). However, this craving for sugar and something comforting can often be misdiagnosed as ‘stress eating’. In 2007, scientists tested a hypothesis that eating chocolate can uplift one’s moods. In a small study, participants were asked to consume chocolate, then self-rate their moods in response to a film clip. Chocolate improved the self-rated mood after watching a sad film clip but did not have any effect on a neutral film clip. Their analysis suggested that chocolate was able to have an immediate effect in uplifting a person’s negative mood, but this was most likely due to palatability. There is a connection between emotion and diet. Diving into “comfort” foods that taste good can lead to a surge in dopamine production - a neurotransmitter that gives us a sense of satisfaction and content.
The chocolate we take comfort in eating comes from cocoa beans that are made of a variety of phytochemicals. The ones that have been most often studied with respect to cognitive functions and mood are flavanols, methylxanthines (including theobromine and caffeine), amino acids (like tryptophan), and biogenic amines (like phenylethylamine (PEA)). fMRI studies demonstrated that although flavanol-rich cocoa drinks increased the blood flow to the brain, they did not have any apparent effects on behavior. Although caffeine enhanced positive mood characters, theobromine in beverages did not seem to influence the measured mood parameters. Biogenic amines like PEA, also commonly known as the ‘love drug’, was popular in its alleged ability to be the perfect alternative for sexual cravings. However, this proved to be a myth, as PEA does not reach the brain when consumed orally. If it does reach the brain, it can lead to migraines and headaches.
So why are we still making such a big fuss about chocolate as a mood booster?! One of the reasons may be another chocolate component: tryptophan. This amino acid can induce the secretion of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is akin to endorphins, both of which are known to make one feel happy. Further, in a combined form, beneficial effects in the form of mental well-being, better response time, and concentration. In addition, these methylxanthines also enhanced the flavor of drinks, indicating that palatability is still a key factor as to why the human brain resorts to chocolate for comfort. Chocolate is also claimed to have a high hedonic value- a reflection of its appealing nature, and consistent with studies suggesting that humans are born with a positive hedonic value for sensory stimuli like sweetness. yed nearly 13, 600 individuals reported that consumption of dark chocolate significantly reduced the odds of developing clinically relevant symptoms of depression. However, this still does not indicate a causation effect of chocolate on mental health. It is possible that individuals with depression lose interest in eating chocolate.
Where does all this leave us? Were Professor Lupin and Madam Pomfrey right? Or are we just finding comfort in a “drug” that uplifts our palate? At the end of the day, it is down to our taste buds. Foods that please our palate in a sensual way do have a way to release hormones that uplift our spirits! But the next time you grab that bar of dark chocolate to relieve your depressed soul, be sure to keep it in check, lest it becomes the cause of your high blood glucose!