Dr. Sara Aton, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan
Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
I became interested in neuroscience research through a part-time job I held in the first two years of college, providing support services to young people with autism and other developmental disorders. I became good friends with the young men and women I worked with there. I was impressed by both how differently their life experiences were from those of most people our age. For example, some of them had extraordinary memories for things like song lyrics (one young man had a collection of hundreds of CDs, and knew the words to every song) or conversations (one young woman would occasionally repeat lengthy conversations that happened years before, word for word). Others were unable to communicate verbally, but were talented artists, who had begun drawing one day out of the blue without any training. Many had extreme difficulty handling sensory information that most of us ignore. They could become very upset by seemingly mundane things, like the sound of a hairdryer or the feeling of someone patting them on the back. I realized that all of the unique challenges they faced, and all of the special talents they had, were due to something special about the way their brains worked. When I tried to learn more, I realized quickly that very little is known about why the brains of people with autism spectrum disorders work differently. In fact, I discovered we still don’t know for certain how basic brain functions – like forming new memories – are carried out. I felt that if we understood more about how the brain works, we would understand how to help people who face daily challenges associated with developmental disorders, depression, etc. This has been my passion ever since.
The greatest thing about being a scientist, for me, is that I am actually getting paid to do the thing I love most – studying the brain, and trying to understand how it works. Today I work as an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, where I teach neuroscience classes and also do research. My laboratory study what sleep does for the brain, and how sleep helps with basic functions of the brain – like making memories that last. Every day in the lab is an adventure – when I wake up in the morning and go to work, I never know how the day will end, what new things I will learn, and what surprises are in store. Better yet, I feel like the work I am doing may someday help others, by improving our understanding of the way the brain functions.
Dr. Kathleen Nolta, Senior Lecturer, University of Michigan
Department of Chemistry
Kathleen received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, and she earned her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. While she trained as a classical biochemist, she has taught a wide variety of courses across the fields of biology and chemistry. Over the past two decades, she has been helping the University of Michigan students to appreciate the art of organic chemistry and the enormity of biochemistry.
What I like most about FEMMES (and the March program) is that this group can help to reveal the scientist inside of every person – and I mean that each person that participates (as student or teacher) can better appreciate the scientist within, since STEM is inside of every person, place, and thing.
Dr. Catherine Collins, Associate Professor, University of Michigan
Department of Molecular, Cellular, Developmental Biology
When I was in middle school and high school in rural North Carolina, I was afraid to show too much interest in science because other kids would think I was a nerd and not cool. Instead I was very interested in art, and loved to spend time drawing and painting. When I had a chance to work in a research lab in college, I realized that science is actually a very creative process. Experiments in the lab usually build upon each other in steps, and involve attention to detail, just like art. Moreover, with science you are building something new: the question you are addressing is something that NO ONE knows the answer to, and there is no pre-determined right method to figuring it out. Different people will have different ideas, and often the most inspiring ideas come from discussions and collaborations, which can be really fun.
Throughout my time as a graduate student (at UCSF) and then as a postdoctoral fellow (at Washington University), the time passed very quickly for me when I was doing experiments in the lab. Every result that I got made me want to do another experiment. Results in the lab can indeed answer questions, but they also almost always lead to many new questions, and new reasons to be excited about the work. Now as an Associate Professor at Michigan, I teach and direct research in my own lab. The projects carried out by students and postdocs in my lab are are yielding insight into how neurons can be repaired after brain injuries, and why, in many cases, damaged neurons die. I feel lucky to have this occupation where I get to think about new things every day, and participate in the building and communication of new knowledge-knowledge that will ultimately lead to new ways to help people with brain injuries and neurodegenerative diseases.