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Brains, Science and Academy

By Cadence, 8, Academy Student

This summer, I took two Academy classes, Brain Function and Algorithms in Nature and Technology, taught by instructor Ms. Nathalie Blume. Ms. Nathalie kindly connected me with Dr. Wendy Gilmore, Associate Professor of Neurology and Cell and Neurobiology in the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Comprehensive Care Center & Research Group in the USC Keck School of Medicine. After talking with Dr. Gilmore, I invited her to video chat with Ms. Nathalie’s Intro to Brain Anatomy and Function class so the students could ask questions about her work. Here are some of the questions students asked:

“How do emotions work?”–Rafa, 9 yo

“What made you want to be a brain scientist and what are you working on now?”–Tobin, 8 yo

“Tell me about the touching areas and senses.”–Eisa, 8 yo

“How does your brain acquire speech while your understanding area of the brain is still developing”–Rayan, 9 yo

“How can messages go fast from your touch sensors to your brain?”–Elijah, 7 yo

“How do you taste”?–Zubin, 7 yo

“How do you swallow and not choke?”–Nico, 5 yo

“What’s the last sense you lose before you die?”– Eliot, 7 yo

“What makes the difference between someone who’s fully paralyzed and someone who’s partially paralyzed?”–Rayan 9 yo

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Additionally, I had the privilege to visit Dr. Gilmore’s office and research lab on the campus of the Keck medical school and interview her about her work. Dr. Gilmore is knowledgeable, warm, very personable, and extremely encouraging to young scholars. To arrange the interview, about a dozen long emails went between my mother, Ms. Nathalie, and Dr. Gilmore. To help me prepare for my interview, Ms. Nathalie volunteered her lunchtime to help me prepare my interview questions. My mother helpfully drove me to the USC Keck School of Medicine to interview Dr. Gilmore.

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Dr. Gilmore met us in the lobby of McKibben Hall. She gave us a mini tour of the building. The things we saw included: a two-story lecture hall with seats enough for 180 medical students, an emergency wash station outside the research labs, and Dr. Gilmore’s office, as well as her personal research lab and all the special equipment in it. She also showed me images of the diseased brains (with MS), a big book about the atlas for a mouse brain, a picture of stem cells (mouse brain also) and explained in great detail the latest research in MS.

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Here are some of the highlights from my interview with Dr. Gilmore:

C: Is there a personality type that lends itself to the field of scientific research? What qualities are needed for success in your field?

W: I think there are many different personalities in scientific research. You can have a personality that is calm and quiet and solitary, like I am. And there are scientists who are good performers and communicators. And I think we need more scientists who are good communicators who can communicate to the outside world to advocate for our findings.

But I think most scientists are creative, they are curious, they are persistent. You have to continue to re-work and re-think based on new knowledge. You have to have a high tolerance for failure in science. Sometimes you can be on the wrong path [in research] for years before you find out. You have to be hungry for knowledge, because the more knowledge you have, the more freedom you have. 

C: So you are saying being a scientist is a set of learned habits, not a preset personality type.

W: That’s correct.

C: Many gifted children are highly sensitive or even “overly sensitive.”  How do you find your own sensitivity to be an asset?

W: Don’t ever worry about being sensitive. I was always a sensitive child as well and I am still a sensitive adult. There are a lot of good things about being sensitive. There are lots of things you will figure out: you notice a lot, you learn a lot. The main thing is that you have to have ways to help you if you get overwhelmed, things to help you think through and calm down when things bother you.  Reading a book is a good way; exercising is also a good way. If you like animals, animals are a wonderful way to stay calm since you have to be calm with them.

I find [my sensitivity] a real asset, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But it is sometimes difficult. The asset is that I detect changes in people, like if they are upset. Or I can pick up subtle body language cues that tell me what somebody is thinking. The main thing that is hard is to figure out what it means and if it’s something that I need to be concerned about. Because I can pick up a lot of stuff, now whether or not I need to do anything about it, that’s a different matter. That is an important thing that I need to pay attention to because I can learn better how to interact with that person. I am the same way with animals and the animals know immediately that I am there to help.

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C: How do you handle critics, if you have any?

W: That’s a very good question. Science, by nature is very critical. And you have to challenge ideas and challenge the proof of those ideas. It’s very important to be critical in science. But what you don’t want to do is to be personal about the criticism. My approach has always been that you take criticism as it is not personal and to think through what criticisms are. For example, if I submit a manuscript for a journal for publication, it would always come back with a review. Sometimes you can tell that those points [of the reviewer] are not valid, but you have to answer them. So you always have to give those criticisms respect, but you have to present your arguments for or against [it]. And the same thing when I write a grant application and it gets reviewed. Sometimes that’s tougher to take. Because you may think, “well that person did not read my grant proposal very carefully” or “well that person really didn’t understand what I am saying.”  So my approach is to think “maybe I didn’t say it very clearly. Let me look at what I said and how I can say it differently and make it clearer.  And the sensitivity also comes into play here.  Sometimes they will say really mean things. In that case I don’t respond… or sometimes I use humor.  Sometimes I did not respond to criticism well, and I have to forgive myself for being sensitive. So usually the best way is to think through it and come up with a solution to clarify, whether you are for or against it, rather than becoming emotionally engaged. But, it’s natural to feel emotion—you have to think your way through those as well.

Sometimes you can be your own critics also.  You have to always forgive yourself, in the same way you are willing to forgive others.

“To catch a glimpse of the commitment and daily work of a serious scientist reminds me of how important ‘all the other skills’ are:  the communicative, inter-personal, writing, self-regulating, even graphic design skills, just to name a few,” my mother said.  “I feel encouraged and affirmed as a parent.”

Thank you to Dr. Gilmore, Ms. Nathalie, and my mother for this opportunity at IEA Academy.

About Dr. Wendy Gilmore
As Associate Professor of Neurology and Cell and Neurobiology in the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Comprehensive Care Center & Research Group in the USC Keck School of Medicine, Dr. Wendy Gilmore completed her Ph.D. in Veterinary Anatomy in Texas, with a specialization in interactions between the brain and the immune system. She was recruited by USC as a postdoctoral fellow in 1982 to study the effects of hormones on those with multiple sclerosis, and in 1989 was appointed USC’s Assistant Professor of Neurology. In her 35 years of work at USC, Dr. Gilmore’s research expanded to include the effects of hormones and pregnancy on immune function of individuals with MS. She is the pioneer scientist to propose a link between the puberty hormone as a trigger for the MS disease. As a result of Dr. Gilmore’s pioneer findings, there are now about 5-6 years of research on the subject of puberty hormones in relationship to MS in the medical field.

Intro to Brain Anatomy & Function will be offered this fall. If you would like to enroll for this or another Academy class, please visit the Academy page on our website

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