Amy Loriaux, Postdoctoral Fellow
Dept of Psychiatry, UT Southwestern Medical Center
LIFE INSIDE THE LAB
What is your work/research topic? I study the neural circuitry of addiction using rat models of cocaine use. I mainly rely on the self-administration model, which allows rats to give themselves intravaneous cocaine, as opposed to experimenter-administered drugs. This is thought to better model the human condition and allows for greater exploration into the progression of drug addiction from acquisition to maintenance to extinction and reinstatement/relapse. I use optogenetic techniques to selectively activate output projections from the ventral striatum, a region implicated in drug addiction, as well as emotion and motivation. I use behavioral tests of depressed mood on cocaine-taking rats to assess the role of these pathways in cocaine-related changes in mood and motivation. Finally, I am interested in the possibility of plastic changes due to chronic cocaine use in these pathways. Since projections in the ventral striatum are mainly GABAergic (ie inhibitory) I use immuno-based assays to determine changes in the expression of proteins at the inhibitory synapse such as the post-synaptic protein gephyrin and various GABA-A receptor subtypes.
Amy Loriaux is a Postdoctoral Fellow at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Follow Amy @RhymesWithOreo.
What was your best day of science? Finishing my dissertation, getting my PhD.
What was your worst day in science? Learning that I would need to find a new postdoc as my first postdoc lab (at Arizona State University) had insecure funding.
What does your average day look like? Get to lab sometime between 10-12, go directly to the rat colony, set up the animals for self-administration and/or mood testing. While animals are doing self-administration, I am usually in my office checking email; going over papers, doing data anaylsis, working on a paper or a grant proposal; or I’m at the bench working either on an immunohistochemistry prep or a Western blot. Leave around 6-7. Weekends are usually reserved for very mundane tasks such as brain slicing or more wet lab work.
What are some of the highlights of your career right now? Publications from all three labs I’ve worked in, including my current lab. Receiving a T32 and then an F32. Presenting at a nanosymposium at Society for Neuroscience conference. Meeting Dr. Eric Kandel at UTSW and escorting Dr. Brenda Milner from the O’hare International Airport in Chicago to a conference downtown.
What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job?The guillotine (Ha! JK). Probably the opto laser. It’s long lost its novelty for me but it is still cool.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF LAB
Where did you grow up? Evanston IL
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? Medical doctor
What do you do to relax outside of lab? Brazillian jui jitsu (blue belt) and mixed martial arts. Exercising improves my mood. I also like seeing live music and I am currently learning how to play the mandolin.
Do you have any pets? I have one cat, his name is Tommy
Do you have any fun hobbies? I suppose playing the mandolin is a hobby.
If you want to talk about your family, what is your family life? How did your family develop alongside your career? I recently suffered a significant loss in my family. This has only sharpened my resolve to see my science be meaningful and help those suffering from psychological disorders such as addiction, depression and PTSD.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Do it! You can get by without too much math if that’s what you’re worried about (I hate math), at least in my field, behavioral neuroscience. But be realistic about the situation in science, you want to be a great scientist with several accolades and adoring fans? Then you must sacrifice your time. This means time to your family, friends and yourself. Is that what you want? If it is, then go for it. You are constantly on the clock and every break you take away from the lab will be reflected in your output, in your chances of getting grants, jobs, article submissions, etc. Time in = data produced. It’s not a happy perspective, no, but it is what it is. Are you driven enough to do this? This must be a passion for you, because only that will push you through it. You’re not going to get paid enough, you’re going to make more misses than hits, you’re going to be rejected more than accepted (papers, grants, etc.). There are more lucrative jobs you can get with a PhD (industry), but that has its tradeoffs as well (such as your inability to retain intellectual property). This has to be a calling. There’s nothing wrong with leaving academia for a more lucrative lifestyle without the guilt of not coming into work on New Year’s Day or Thanksgiving.
Given that, you should ultimately let go from time to time to regenerate. I have my martial arts and music; other people have their own thing. You can have a family, you can have a bit of a life. But it is still a basic equation: Time in = data produced. You will have to prioritize what comes first, second, third in your life. Those great Nobel Lauriat’s? They most likely choose science over family, over their friends, and ultimately themselves (and, probably aren’t really the nicest people to be around, but they got what they wanted). What is it that you want? Figure that out, or else you may just want to stick with your average 9-5.
Little aside, everyone outside academia gets really impressed when you say you have a PhD and are a scientist. Course at work you’re surrounded by PhDs and MDs, so it’s not as impressive…
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? Dr. Whitney Sweeney of Beloit College, in Beloit WI. Small liberal arts college, only undergraduate students. She taught my psychophysiology course and an advanced psychology course on drug addiction. It was when she went over the Solomon’s Opponent-Process Theory of addiction that I realized how freakin’ awesome the brain was. If you are aware of the theory (modified since to more of a homeostatic theory proposed by Koob) it essentially explains how psychological stimuli can cause physiological changes which lead to craving. This theory can also be used to explain how heroin addicts can overdose on their usual dose if they’re in a novel setting. Those contextual cues from his usual drug spot aren’t available to tell the body to prepare for the heroin. Distilled down, this essentially means psychological stimuli, such as contextual cues, things you don’t even consider as impacting your body, can mean life or death for someone. OMG, HOW DOES THIS WORK? I was hooked from then on, and am still hooked.
Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? I was always interested in science as a kid. I remember I wanted to be a meteorologist (not just a weatherman/woman, whatever, but an actual experimental scientist). I soon learned how much physics and math this would mean I would need to know (thermodynamics, anyone?) and it kind of scared me off, which isn’t cool, but there it is. I then got interested in psychology, specifically developmental psychology. How, for instance, do young children learn to speak, learn to conceptualize the abstract, form moral judgements, etc. I essentially explained what turned me on to neuroscience in question 15, so I won’t repeat it here. Also, a bit of insight into the drug addict’s feelings and attitudes while trying to abstain didn’t hurt either in sparking my curiosity (we have a thing called MEsearch in science. I won’t go into details, let’s just say that I wanted to know why quitting substance use was so freakin’ hard).
What was your biggest challenge during your degree? Writing my master’s thesis. This was my first, really, really long (it seemed at the time) piece of writing that I had to do from scratch. Oh man, so much reading, so much citation. It felt like chipping away at a mountainside with an icepick. Write, write, write, then delete, delete, delete, start over. I’ve since learned how to write science, although it still seems daunting until you get into it. Grant writing still scares me, although I’ve written 3 NRSA proposals and an R21. Those are probably the most challenging to write. I’ve seen seasoned PI’s freak out about R01s. Not looking forward to that, but at the same time, it does seem like a challenge that I’d like to attempt.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? Myself, my family, and my ego. Also I knew I would need a PhD to do what I wanted to do, which is be a scientist.
If you left academia, what was the biggest hurdle you had moving to industry/other? Haven’t left…yet
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? There is still an “old boys club” feel in my field and it probably exists in other STEM fields. These are indeed “old boys” and they will eventually retire out of the system. However, right now, they are the ones pretty much in charge. They’re the ones reviewing your papers, grant proposals; they’re your mentors, your bosses. We need more women to change that demographic. You may notice that some of the older women scientists are some tough-a$$ b—-es. Why? Because they had to be to survive that old boys club mentality (they are pioneers, btw, so show them respect. My own mother was the only women in her engineering classes back in the 70s, but you probably are used to at least a few women in your classes now. It’s because of these pioneer women in science and technology that you don’t have to know what it’s like to be the only woman in a class room). Something equally important: the old boys mentality led to some male scientists seeing women colleagues or mentees as something of conquests. Yes, sexual conquests. There are still some male scientists with that mentality. So yeah, we need more women scientists to make sure this sick attitude goes the way of the dinosaur.
That said, there are plenty of good male scientists. These guys can provide you with great advice and help, and they are the majority of male scientists that I’ve met. They’re younger, and grew up during the height of the women’s movement (as opposed to the Mad Men era). I, for one, will always turn to my graduate mentor, a man, for advice on science matters.
What is your favorite book? Probably John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”. Also like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”.
What is your favorite desk snack? Yogurt with honey and granola. At least that’s what I’ve been eating lately.
What is your favorite cartoon? The Simpsons
What would you listen to while writing? Bluegrass, new roots music some days, metal and early 80s punk on others. Occasionally early 90s rap and hip-hop.
What was your favorite subject in high school? …science…duh…
What color socks are you wearing? I’m wearing white socks with kitties on them. Cat socks FTW!!!
What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? Damn, I’m actually filling this out at home…let me think…I guess this ugly stuffed rat I got from my in-laws. I actually have used it in my experiments, as a stand-in for when I was trying to get this camera to work in the skinner boxes.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? Curated chaos, there is a method to the madness
Any other fun facts about you… Since I’ve been in Texas I’ve developed an appreciation for rye whiskey and bourbon, my favorite submission hold is a kimura (shoulder lock), I’m a huge Danzig and original Misfits fan. We are 138!
FOLLOW AMY ON TWITTER @RhymesWithOreo