Life Inside the Lab:
What is your research topic? I’m studying how brain cells called astrocytes affect the ways that neurons grow and communicate. Most people know about neurons, because since they’re the cells that do all of the signaling to keep us walking and talking, they’re kind of the brain’s superstars. It turns out that they’re not the only cells up there – about half of the brain is made up of glia, which literally means “brain glue”. Scientists ignored these cells for a long time, thinking they were just scaffolding to hold the neurons in place, but in the last 20 years we’ve started to learn that they actually play a lot of important roles in the brain! My research is focused on figuring out how the proteins generated by astrocytes help or hinder neuronal development.
Alie Caldwell is a Graduate Student at UC San Diego, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and the host of Neuro Transmissions. Follow her science @Alie_Astrocyte.
What was your best day in science? The day that I left for a camping trip, I got an email with a big Excel file that had the results of almost a year of experiments and sample collection. I was hilariously giddy as I squinted at my smartphone screen, trying to see the names of the proteins in our data set. It was such an exciting moment – for a minute, I was the only person in the world who knew about what those results might mean!
What was your worst day in science? One day I was doing an analysis and realized that I’d been doing it incorrectly for like…six months. This meant that samples I’d collected for the last 6 months were incorrectly measured. I was super upset about it for about half an hour. Then I pulled up all of the incorrect calculations, one by one, and redid them all correctly. In the end, I was able to salvage the situation and my samples turned out okay!
What are you studying at university? As an undergraduate I studied Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and my favorite classes were the ones I took about cellular and molecular biology. I took that one step further in grad school – now I’m still studying cellular and molecular neuroscience, but with a focus on astrocytes.
What does your average day look like? I bike to lab every day, and once I arrive I change into “real” clothes before sitting down at my desk with my coffee and a quick breakfast while I check emails and the news. A lot of days find me isolating either astrocytes or neurons – protocols that take about four to six hours – and can occupy most of my day. Other days I’ll stain and image cells, run qPCR analysis on my cell cultures, take care of animal husbandry, or work on some new side projects. If my experiments allow, I’ll often hit up one of the lunchtime fitness classes offered for Salk Institute employees. At the end of the day, I’ll bike home and after making dinner, I’ll usually get to work writing video scripts until bed time – with breaks to play with my cats.
Astrocytes stained for GFAP (green) and DAPI nuclear stain (blue). Funnily enough, these were “accidental” astrocytes – the ones I use for my experiments are older and don’t stain for GFAP very well, but these guys snuck into a cortical culture I was testing!
What are some of the highlights of your career? I love the freedom and flexibility I have on a daily basis. I have a wonderful PI and mentor who’s helping me grow intellectually and doesn’t care about how many hours I spend in lab, so I get to make my own schedule. I love being surrounded by such a diverse group of brilliant researchers – there’s so much incredible work happening at the Salk Institute, and it’s very humbling to be a part of this institution, and to contribute to a body of scientific knowledge. Outside of lab, being invited to write scripts for SciShow was a huge highlight – Hank Green is my scicomm hero, and being able to write for such a great channel is amazing. Being a Science Media Awards Fellow in 2016 was pretty huge, too – I got to be part of the first class of Fellows, meet a ton of incredible science media creators, and strike up some friendships that I’m still incredibly grateful to have!
What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? Probably my tissue culture hood. We have two in the lab and there’s one that I think of as “mine” because it’s the only one set up for the protocols I use. When you spend hours and hours a day in there, it starts to feel like home!
Life Outside of Lab
Where did you grow up? Milwaukee, Wisconsin
When I’m not writing scripts or working in lab, I’m trying to get outside. I treasure the community garden plot we have in our neighborhood, and love to camp and hike. Micah and I have just started some short backpacking trips and we’re loving it!
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? Early on, it was a toss up between horse trainer, marine biologist, and veterinarian. I discovered astronomy and Carl Sagan when I was about 11 and became totally obsessed with being an astronaut. I actually went to MIT to study astronautical engineering until I discovered my real passion in neuroscience.
What do you do to relax outside of lab? Pretty much every day I cook dinner at home, it’s a nice transition from lab to the rest of my life. I also love to garden, camp, hike, and read – especially sci-fi & speculative fiction by diverse authors.
Do you have any pets? Heck yeah! The two best cats in the whole world! Loki’s a hefty, excitable Siamese mix who loves playtime and talks to himself a lot. Bill is a Scottish Fold mix who loves to cuddle on the couch and watch TV and lounges around on his back a lot.
Loki is the noisy, obnoxious Siamese and Bill is the sweet and snuggly Scottish Fold.
Do you have any fun hobbies? My biggest hobby is writing and hosting a YouTube channel all about the brain. My partner and I started Neuro Transmissions in September of 2015 and we’ve been putting out a video every two weeks since then – writing and filming scripts takes a lot of time!
What is your family life like? I always joke that my family puts the “fun” back in dysfunctional. My whole family still lives in Wisconsin. My parents aren’t scientists – my mom used to work in sales management and my dad was a police officer before the 2008 recession hit them pretty hard. My mom had a rough childhood and things have been tough since the recession but she and my dad are making it work, and they’ve always been very supportive of me and my love for science – it was never a question of “if” I’d become a scientist, but rather when. I have a younger brother who I’m not very close to, and a rad little sister who’s in college now. I have a family history of mental illness, especially anxiety, depression, and alcoholism, and my grandfather (who I’m very close to) has dementia, so all of those facts are in the back of my mind as I move through my research and my life. I’m married to my sort-of high school sweetheart; we met right after high school and didn’t plan on dating into college, but ten years later we’re still going strong. He’s really wonderful and has been super supportive of me in every dimension of my life, as have his awesome parents and siblings
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? I read Carl Sagan’s Cosmos as a 12 year old and there were two things that really captured my attention. His discussion of the googl and googlplex blew my adolescent mind in a way it had never been blown before, as I tried to wrap my mind around impossibly huge numbers. His thoughts on what life forms on Jupiter might look like spoke to the biologist in my soul, too. After reading Cosmos, I never looked back – it was science or bust.
Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? I just wanted to know stuff. I was totally the insufferable smart kid as a teenager – I probably still am – and science seemed like the best way to get to keep learning all the time. In high school, I played a number of instruments, including bagpipe and bassoon. During my junior year of high school, there was a little while when I thought about pursuing a degree in bassoon performance. Ultimately, I decided that while you didn’t need a degree to play bassoon with local/community orchestras, you probably did need one to do science. My undergraduate degree aligns pretty closely with my current position as a graduate student – although I don’t think we ever learned about astrocytes in undergrad. Another example of anti-glia bias!
What was your biggest challenge during your degree? I had a really, really rough time at MIT. It was partially my fault – I wasn’t mature enough to recognize and escape from an unhealthy living environment, and retreated to my computer to Skype with my long-distance boyfriend while my social life suffered. It was also partially the university – it’s easy to fall through the cracks at a school where everyone is incredibly brilliant and working super hard. Classes were actually the best part of undergrad for me; I’m good at school and I loved learning. But socially I struggled a lot, and I was pretty miserable most of the time.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? I wanted to do science every day! When I started grad school, I knew that I could handle doing research all day, every day, because I’d spent two years as a lab technician. I wanted to get my PhD to expand my skill set. Doing bench work is only one part of it – I also wanted to learn how to write scientifically, how to give a scientific presentation, how to write a good grant, and most importantly, how to think about scientific questions and develop new approaches to answer them.
My partner in life and in business. He keeps Neuro Transmissions running.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Find people who support you and your interests. It might not always come from home – although it should! – but there are tons of people out there who will cheer you on as you explore STEM. Everyone needs cheerleaders to get through life – and that’s especially true for people who are breaking through glass ceilings. Imposter Syndrome is real, and the best antidote is to surround yourself as much as possible with people who know that you can do it, to keep you going when you have a hard time remembering that yourself! This is why I love my social media families – the scientists I’ve met through Twitter have been some of the kindest, most thoughtful people, and they can empathize with my experiences. Social media presents an opportunity to connect with communities that maybe aren’t so easy to find in real life.
Are there any women in STEM who are inspiring you right now, and why? I’m inspired daily by pretty much every female scientist I know. They’re out there working hard to advance science and most of them have side hustles, too. I’m inspired by people like Danielle Lee, Raychelle Burks, and Mónica Feliú-Mójer, who bring their excitement about science and their unique perspectives and experiences in science to the table – and in being so open about their experiences, they’re able to connect a bigger audience to science, and expand the perception of what it means to be a scientist. Lauren’s blog – and this profile series – are part of that, too. There are so many incredible women who do science or who have done science and are now taking that science to the streets – and the internet!
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? Diversity in STEM matters. There’s this misperception that science is a neutral, objective field – it’s really not. The scientific process is objective; it’s designed to be logical and unbiased. But there are a lot of human layers that science has to go through before you even get to that point – someone has to notice something about the world and ask a question about it before you can even begin to develop a hypothesis and plan an experimental approach. So the people who do science influence science – they decide what questions to ask, and how to answer them, and how to evaluate and understand the answers they find. We bring our whole lives to the lab with us – I don’t stop being a woman, or being white, or being heterosexual when I go into the lab. This might not have obvious impacts on the kind of work that I do – but what if I were studying addiction? With my family history of alcoholism, I’d probably have a different perspective on that kind of research than another person. If we really want to understand the world – wholly, and “objectively” – we need to look at these questions from all angles, and that requires a diverse set of perspectives to look at each problem.
What is your favorite book? Pretty much anything by Ursula K LeGuin; she writes some really spectacular science fiction that uses different planets and species to tell stories about race, gender, and cultural values. A great example of this is “The Dispossessed”.
What is your favorite desk snack? Savory: Kirkland Valencia Peanut Butter Filled Pretzel Nuggets. Sweet: Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate with Almonds. And there’s always a bottle of Cholula sauce in my drawer.
What is your favorite cartoon? Ooo this is a hard one. Maybe Full Metal Alchemist – I cried at the end, it was that good.
What would you listen to while writing? There’s this album on Spotify that’s called “Star Wars Headspace” and it’s the perfect blend of ambient electronic music and Star Wars sounds for my nerdy soul.
What was your favorite subject in high school? Biology
What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? A 96 well plate with tissue samples that I’m about to send off for analysis
Organization nut, or curated chaos? Toooootally an organization nut
Any other fun fact about you... In addition to being a graduate student, I’m also a science writer! And not just any kind of science writing – I write science videos. Along with my husband, I’m the co-creator, writer, and host of Neuro Transmissions, a YouTube series that’s all about the brain. We’ve been making videos for over a year and having a ton of fun, and I’ve met so many incredible communicators and filmmakers. I’m really fascinating by how new and emerging digital platforms can be used to tell science stories in new ways, and this includes the variety of video formats and platforms that are being used for social media and for educational purposes. I also do some freelancing, and I’ve written over 30 episodes for SciShow, YouTube’s largest science channel. Writing for them has improved both the speed and the quality of my writing; I have some incredible editors who have helped me develop my own pitches and assigned me fascinating science topics. I love it!
What color socks are you wearing? I’m not wearing socks – the perks of living in Southern California. 🙂
Follow Alie on Twitter @Alie_Astrocyte.
- www.alieastrocyte.com – personal website
- www.neurotransmissions.science – Neuro Transmissions
- http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1113/JP270988/full – A review I wrote with a colleague about the roles of astrocytes in disease