Dr. Lorna Role on Science, Sculpting, and Success

By Megan Chang

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Earning both her B.A. in Applied Mathematics and her Ph.D in Physiology from Harvard University, her full professor title at Columbia University, and more awards and honors than can be accounted for, it is safe to say that Dr. Lorna Role is accomplished beyond the norm. She has been a member of Stony Brook’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior for six years and currently serves as a Professor, as well as its Chair. In those six years, Role has done astounding research in her field, focusing mainly on central cholinergic circuits, which are neural circuits related to the acetylcholine transmitter. These cholinergic circuits play a significant role in the modulation of synaptic excitability and have been associated with multiple neurological diseases, including schizophrenia, depression, and Alzheimer’s. Dr. Role’s lab has studied the function of cholinergic signaling in memory and learning, and is currently studying the role that products of neuregulin-1, a novel class of signaling molecules, may have in maintaining cholinergic circuits.

Dr. Role has earned multiple esteemed titles, such as Fellow of the American College of Neuropsycho-pharmacology (ACNP) in 2009, and many prestigious awards, like the NIH Pioneer Award in 2010. Despite her remarkable success as an accomplished scientist, Dr. Lorna Role remains down-to-earth, hard-working, and continues to strive to help others reach their aspirations. She sat down with the Stony Brook Young Investigators Review to tell her story and to remind readers that goals can be achieved with curiosity, passion, and drive.

How did you decide to pursue a career in research?

I majored in Applied Math and minored in architectural history [as an undergraduate] because I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. By the time I was a senior, I still had no idea what I wanted to do.  I had done a thesis on gothic architecture and a thesis on Laplace’s theorem and applications to cardiac mechanics; I was all over the place! I ended up applying to schools of architecture, medical schools, and Ph.D programs, and I decided that whatever I got into first, I would go there. So I think that if I hadn’t gone into medical research, I would have gone into architecture or some form of art.  Though I decided to pursue research, I still paint and sculpt; art is still a big part of my life.

Why did you decide to pursue research, as opposed to medicine?

Research was completely the right decision for me because I knew I wanted to be involved in the process of finding new things. It’s really thrilling when you discover something; I have always been captivated by that.

I was initially in a MD-PhD program, and medical training does give one a broader context for research. If you get an education in both, then you’re in the truly ideal situation because you have better perspective, and you know what it takes to understand how something works. You also know which diseases are in desperate need of an intervention. Both perspectives are great to have, but ultimately, I think one’s heart goes in one direction or the other.

How were you drawn to neurobiology?

That was definitely a post-hoc decision. I was in a Ph.D program in physiology and interested in cardiovascular mechanics. I was very lucky; I was at Harvard and taught by Hubel and Weisel, who both received the Nobel Prize [in Physiology and Medicine]. There were a number of people who were remarkable teachers and inspirational researchers, so I got pulled into neurobiology. It’s a blast! I really believe the [brain] is the final frontier. The most amazing thing was watching my kids grow up and do things like acquire language. It’s so interesting how different it is in every individual.

Out of all the places you could have gone, why did you choose Stony Brook?

You have different stages of your career in terms of what you want to put your energy into.  I had been at these fancy private schools my whole life. I’m a 60’s kid, so my inner hippie finally decided to express itself. Also, I had been at a medical school all my life, so I thought I would enjoy being at a university where there were departments of art and music, or other things than what they call “preclinical sciences.” I never dreamed it would be as incredibly invigorating as it is – it’s such a different environment for teaching and interacting with students.  I was really interested in so many different things and I missed that after 25 years of teaching at medical school.  Aside from that, the biggest thing that attracted me was the people who were here.

Much of your research focuses on the molecule ‘acetylcholine.’ What is it exactly?

There are many transmitter systems in the brain that all act together to shape something complex, such as personality and memory. Acetylcholine is an important modulatory transmitter in these processes. It doesn’t necessarily excite or inhibit the neurons in the brain directly, but rather, fine-tunes them all the time. A lot of the nuanced activity of neurons is actually influenced by these kinds of modulatory transmitters. Acetylcholine is the last one that people are figuring out.

Acetylcholine plays a significant role in Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most prevalent neurodegenerative disease today [1].  It has been said that there may never be a true form of treatment for the disease– is this still the case? 

There is no cure; that’s for sure.  AD results in death usually within eight years of diagnosis, but there is a lot of hope in terms of the research. The diagnosis has come very late in the process, so we have not been able to recognize earlier signs.  By the time most people are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, they have already had the disease for ten to fifteen years.  The time between onset and diagnosis can be improved by getting earlier biomarkers and understanding more about the processes that go on.

Another area that’s really important is quality of life.  What is particularly devastating about Alzheimer’s is that it often robs the individual of critical aspects of their personality. It takes away their memories and the things that they’ve experienced.  When that goes, it erodes fundamental aspects of people’s personalities, their interactions with others, and their ability to understand and enjoy their environment. We’re looking for mechanisms that could enhance cognitive functions so they have a little bit more control because that’s really devastating, not just to the individuals who have it, but to the family.  Almost no one exists that hasn’t been touched by AD in one way or another.

Out of all your accomplishments, which one do you consider your greatest?

I am most proud of my daughters, without question.  One is a clinical psychologist and the other is finishing medical school to be a psychiatrist, so they’re [both] studying the brain! They’re really neat, but I don’t think I had much to do with that—I just watched them become awesome. In regards to science, I’d say it’s a toss-up. The one that’s been the most fun was getting the Pioneer Award because it’s a huge amount of money: half a million dollars per year for five years. It’s given to people for crazy ideas, and if there’s anything I can do, it’s have a crazy idea!

I think the most surprising one was when I got the Distinguished Investigator Award from NARSAD.  I had never done anything related to schizophrenia. I was looking for regulators of the [acetylcholine] receptors that bind nicotine in the brain, and I found that the regulator was this gene that is a major schizophrenia susceptibility gene. If you’re missing one copy of this gene, called neuregulin, it messes up some of your cholinergic receptors.

The real problem that schizophrenics have is that the sensory information comes in and it’s all equally vital. Most people know to ignore certain things, but for schizophrenics, everything is important. They cannot sort between necessary and not necessary. [For example], the noise of the air conditioners would be just as important as our voices or as a flashing light going off outside.  Smoking apparently helps them focus and enables them to attend to the essential rather than the nonessential information coming into their brains. So schizophrenics are basically self-medicating when they smoke! That’s how I got the award for innovative research on schizophrenia. It was a real surprise. I never expected a gene that regulated nicotinic receptors would have anything to do with schizophrenia. I remember thinking, “Really? This isn’t even what I was researching!” That’s why you have to keep an open mind.  It’s the stuff you don’t expect.  The stuff that makes you go, “What? I don’t get that.” That’s the cool stuff.

What is a normal day like for you?

Well, it starts with me waking up at 4 AM.  That’s “me” time, when I can think, write, and prepare for what I have to do that day.  Then I’ll head over to my lab, but only for a bit because when you’ve been the head of a lab for a long time, the researchers don’t want you to touch anything anymore.  I’ll come over to a student or postdoc’s workspace and say, “How’s it going?” and they’ll often usher me away.

In the afternoon, I’m here in the Chair’s office. As a Chair, you really serve your faculty– that’s your first line of duty.  Your science no longer comes first; it’s the science and the careers of those in your department. I’ll try to guide the junior professors in terms of balancing the demands, because there are a lot of things that an academic scientist does in particular. You get asked to review grants and papers for journals. At the university level, you serve on committees where you’re involved in hiring individuals at different levels.  You have departmental service, university service, service in your field, meetings, have to be sure you’re publishing and getting all your grants—and oh yeah, have some kids in the middle! I’ve been able to do all those things. I know what it’s like to handle that juggle, so it’s nice to help people along in their careers and make it easier on them.

What is most enjoyable about your job?

The students, definitely.  The students are fun because they’re always willing to ask questions. While teaching at Columbia medical school, I got a lot of, “What questions are going to be on the exam? What do I need to do to get my A?” At Stony Brook University, the students ask anything off the top of their head!  It’s really refreshing. I teach science, but I think they teach me more science than I teach them.

What hobbies do you have?

My very favorite thing to do (besides being with my girls) was running.  I was a serious long distance runner until I [messed] up my knee. I love sports, and I also love the cold, so winter sports are definitely huge. Otherwise, it’s art. I really enjoy sculpting. I think that if I hadn’t gone into medical research, I would have gone into architecture or some form of art.  I love it because it’s actually similar to research. You look at a rock or a piece of metal and you have to see what it forms itself into. You may guide it a bit, but it evolves. I like when you see something and it finds its way out.

 

How would you advise a student who also wanted to go into neurobiological research?

First, I’d tell them to read everything that they could get their hands on and see what parts of it they gravitate towards. And then I would tell them to find a doctor, lab, or hospital job and immerse themselves in it.  Remember, there are a million different ways you could be a neuroscientist. Find out what people you want to be interacting with. You have to find your niche, and then you won’t mind working hard. You want to find where you love it because work really has to be something you love. I got that advice from my dad; he was right with that one.

 

If you had the world’s undivided attention for ten minutes, what would you say?

I would make a pitch for people to give science a chance. People think that science is for geeks, but it’s really not. I would really love to talk to people who don’t do science and help them see how much fun it is, how varied it is, and how creative it is. I would try to convey that science is a part of their lives and that they can enrich so much of their life by understanding it and not pushing it aside. It’s hard to communicate the beauty of science to people. Sometimes, there’s this wall and I think it’s partially the fault of the people who do science. We don’t make enough of an effort to convey how fun and interesting it is and the ways in which it relates to everybody. It isn’t just about knowing stuff, but understanding your own self and how you work.  And it can be about anything, like why people smoke, why it’s so fun to go dancing, or even why Jello congeals. It can be literally anything!

References:

Role, Lorna. Personal interview. 30 Jan. 2014.

[1] Thies W., Blieler L., Alzheimer’s Association. 2013. 2013 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. 2(9):208-245.

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