Have you ever wondered how our brains allow us to see, hear, smell, or touch, or why we behave in certain ways when we take a medicine or other kind of drug? When I was working as a research scientist, I studied the brain and nervous system, which holds the answers to all of these questions. Our nervous system is a very complex and important part of our bodies; it is like the highway map inside us that tells our major organs how to function and our sensory organs what they perceive. One important topic when it comes to the brain and our senses is how they function when they are affected by outside substances like drugs. In my research, I wanted to understand how one new chemical introduced to the body could completely change the way it functions.
There are many different kinds of drugs. Some are used to treat diseases both mental and physical; some are also used to change a person’s perception of reality, or as some of you may have heard it described, “get you high.” Drugs may be familiar chemicals like caffeine. Some illegal drugs have a stronger effect on the body and create many serious reactions. One drug I studied was PCP, an illegal drug also known as “Angel Dust.” PCP sends signals through neurons in the brain. Neurons are cells that carry messages through the nervous system telling our bodies how to react.
Because PCP tells our nervous system to do its job in an exaggerated way, studying it helps scientists understand how our brains react to chemicals by sending messages to our bodies. This process is helpful when trying to figure out how to treat people who are sick. Through this kind of research, we learn how to tell the brain and body to fix itself with the help of drugs.
I have been interested in the brain and its functions since I was in junior high when my little brother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I learned a lot by asking questions and watching him go through treatment after treatment. We were lucky that my father was in the Navy, because it meant we had all the best military doctors treating my brother.
Because my father was in the Navy, I lived in Japan for the first few years of my life. My parents say I spoke Japanese as well as English when I was small. My father was my first role model, so I wanted to be like him in a lot of ways, and became very interested in ships, and technology, and airplanes.
My childhood interests grew into my career, and now I am called the Chief for Research Scientist Development Programs in the Office for Special Populations at the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s a long name, but basically it means I get to help men and women from underrepresented groups, like Latinos and Native Americans, to advance in areas of mental health research. This way, I am able to help make sure people from any background or ethnicity have the same opportunities to reach their goals as I did. As a scientist, I get to ask new questions and then find the answers. I think the best thing any student can do is make sure you are never afraid to ask questions. You should also always demand an answer because that’s exactly what science and learning is all about.