Let’s keep the brain ball rolling here at RS with Alie Caldwell (@alie_astrocyte), a graduate research assistant in astrocyte biology at UCSD. She is the co-creator of YouTube series Neuro Transmissions and is the programming organising chair for ComSciCon 2018! As usual, we asked some questions and got some answers:
What brought you to science?
I’ve always been interested in science – my earliest career aspirations were marine biologist, horse trainer, and veterinarian. I really fell in love when I read Cosmos as a 12 year old and started focusing on science in my studies, taking advanced science classes before going into high school. I was really lucky in that I had several really awesome science teachers in high school, and despite the fact that neither of my parents are scientists, they were always super supportive of my interests. “Girls can’t” or “girls shouldn’t” was never part of my upbringing. I chose MIT as my dream school and while I had a hard time as a student there, my love for the science really kept me going. I fell in love with the grand questions about humanity that neuroscience presented – are we uniquely intelligent? Can we pinpoint the seat of consciousness? This started with my introductory neuro and psychology courses during my first year of undergrad, and I gradually became more and more focused on the cellular and molecular processes of the brain. I loved learning about things like LTP and neuroanatomy.
How did you become interested in your field?
I fell into astrocyte biology kind of by accident. My advisor spoke about her research during our grad school orientation, and she was one of the few people studying neurodevelopment that I’d heard from. I thought her work sounded interesting and asked if I could do a rotation, and just loved the lab. I felt very wanted and welcome, and my advisor made it clear that she had funding and space for me if I wanted to join – so I did. Once in the lab, I realized how little we actually know about astrocytes, and what they’re doing in the brain. We’re just starting to ask questions about astrocytes that we’ve been asking about neurons for decades. All of the unknowns make it a particularly exciting field to be a part of, because everything we’re learning is so brand new. I like to joke that glial biologists are basically conspiracy theorists, trying to convince the rest of the world that aliens are real.
What are you working on right now?
I’m trying to understand how astrocyte-secreted proteins influence the growth and development of neurons in the brain. In the 90’s, Ben Barres and Frank Pfrieger made the discovery that neurons grown alone in a dish survived okay, but didn’t grow very much, or make very many connections with one another. But, if you grow the neurons with astrocytes, they make five times as many connections – and this is true even if the neurons and astrocytes aren’t touching each other, which means that something the astrocytes are spitting out is helping the neurons develop. I’m trying to help figure out what the astrocytes are spitting out that helps neurons grow and communicate with one another. I’m especially interested in understanding how genetic mutations affect the proteins that astrocytes are spitting out, and how changes in astrocyte function due to those mutations might be playing a part in the physiology of disease.
Why do you think it’s important?
With billions of neurons and a hundred times as many potential synaptic connections, we already knew that the brain was complicated. But half of the cells in the brain aren’t neurons – they’re glia, literally “brain glue”. We used to think they didn’t do anything other than support neurons, but it turns out that many of these cells are really active partners in helping neurons grow, develop, and communicate. This adds a whole other layer of complexity to the brain, and present a new opportunity to understand brain conditions and diseases, like Alzheimer’s Disease or Down Syndrome. My work is focused on genetic mutations that cause serious neurodevelopmental disorders that come along with a whole host of cognitive and physical disabilities. My hope is that my research will uncover new targets for treatments to help these patients live their lives to the fullest.
What do you do when you’re not in the lab?
I’m a science video writer on the side, and the co-creator of Neuro Transmissions (www.youtube.com/neurotransmissions), a YouTube channel all about the brain. My partner and I put out a video every two weeks, and it’s probably our biggest commitment outside of our “real” jobs. I am also the programming organizing chair for ComSciCon 2018, so I’m leading a team of 8 people to coordinate the panels and hands-on workshops for 50 graduate student leaders in scicomm from all over the country this June.
I love gardening – especially growing vegetables – because it gets me outside enjoying the sun and breeze, and I get to eat delicious fresh food on top of it. We keep a community garden plot and especially enjoy growing our own tomatoes and tomatillos. I also really love to cook, and make dinner at home pretty much every night; it’s how I unwind from the day in lab and get ready for my evening.
Please welcome Alie to Real Scientists!