By Janine Gronewold and Miriam Engels
During the Covid-19 pandemic, with its repeated lockdowns and social restrictions, many people across the globe have reported increased feelings of isolation and loneliness. Prolonged loneliness is known to be associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes, for example increased cerebrovascular disease. What could be the mechanism underlying this association? That is the subject of a recent perspective article in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience.
Its authors, Dr Janine Gronewold, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Vascular Neurology and Dementia of the University Hospital Essen, and Miriam Engels, a doctoral student at the Institute of Medical Sociology at the University Clinic Düsseldorf and lecturer at the Open University of the Netherlands, were inspired by a recently proposed framework for adaptive versus maladaptive brain-body interactions. For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2022 on 11th February, Gronewold (denoted as JG below) and Engels (ME) here interview two of the authors behind this framework, Dr Sarah Garfinkel (SG), professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, and her postdoc Dr Lisa Quadt (LQ), a research fellow in Clinical Neuroscience at Brighton & Sussex Medical School. Here, they ask Garfinkel and Quadt about their career, their research, and what drives them.
JG & ME: What inspired you to go into science?
LQ: I did my PhD in ‘philosophy of mind’, where I already worked interdisciplinarily but I was not trained in neuroscience or psychology. At the end of my PhD, philosophy became a bit lonely. I was always very interested in the clinical aspects. So I made the decision to transition into neuroscience, and luckily Sarah Garfinkel and Hugo Critchley hired me as a postdoc and it’s been really amazing.
SG: I was quite dyslexic growing up and things did not necessarily come easy to me. I always thought I would go into art school. But during my final project in undergrad, I really loved it. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to apply for a PhD position, but they offered it to me and I really see that as a landmark moment. Now I find myself leading my own neuroscience lab in London which is still a little bit of a surprise.
What I love most about my job now is to see that brilliance in others – even if their confidence does not know it yet – and help them. Something very meaningful to me as I progress, is working with junior scientists. We can try to build a good and supportive lab for people.
JG & ME: Can you tell us more about the motivation behind your current research?
LQ: After we had this theoretical paper that your article is based on, we also had data from a big clinical trial that tested an interoceptive intervention against anxiety in autistic adults. There was one moment where an autistic participant filled out the loneliness questionnaire and she said: “My score will be quite high and it will show you that I’m quite lonely, but this is how I choose to live. I’m not upset about that.” So we added some extra questions to the questionnaire asking : “How much does this upset you?”. And this paper we’re working on right now shows that autistic and non-autistic adults are equally distressed by being lonely.
SG: There is another example I give in talks. I closely examined skin conductance data from autistic individuals and it actually shows a heightened bodily empathy response. When I show this data, many people write to me to say: “Thank you”. It breaks their heart to hear the stereotypes that their kids might lack empathy because they know that it is feeling it intensely. I think it is our duty as scientists to try to reverse these wrong stereotypes.
LQ: I think this has been a collective trauma for the autism community. It is just one sentence in one paper saying that they lack empathy, which is a very basic human thing. So I think it’s really important that the scientific community now starts to help healing that trauma and empirically show that these are misconceptions.
JG & ME: Can you elaborate on the term ‘co-production’ and explain what that means?
LQ: Yes, you might have heard of participatory research where the sentence that is used is “Nothing about us without us”. So before you do a study on autistic people, make sure you talk with them. Does this reflect their beliefs and their values? What are their ideas and potential barriers? I started to learn how to make things more accessible. For example, there is an overrepresentation of dyslexia in the autistic community. Instead of sitting them down in our lab for two hours and making them fill out questionnaires, they can do it at home in their own time. Autistic autism researchers like Dr Gemma Williams have just been amazing in educating us. Their collaboration is often unpaid. I hope that funders at some point will pick that up and make more money available for that work.
If you could change one thing about science right now, what would it be?
SG: One thing is that it is a very long hard road of short-term contracts and the lack of stability, which puts pressure on junior researchers. I think people do their most creative work where they feel secure and happy, so it is important to make sure that being a scientist does not mean sacrificing aspects of your life. Secondly, there is probably still a persisting sentiment that aggression and confidence is equated with brilliance, and I don’t think there is any place for that attitude – good science can always be done with kindness. And sometimes the field doesn’t reward the shyer and less confident but brilliant scientists. Stereotypes persist and maybe women have a harder time convincing people that they are good, which can weigh you down.
JG & ME: Do you think it has become easier for young female neuroscientists over the past years? What advice would you give those who are still at the start of their scientific career?
SG: There were things that happened when I was more junior that wouldn’t happen now. At the same time I think there are things that persist and I think social media adds a whole new dimension, which can actually make it harder. So it is not just a progressive road of things getting easier. Lab culture makes such a difference and you should choose that as carefully as you would choose the subject area.
LQ: Yeah, I think that is very true. I always like to encourage people to do what they actually want to do and do not feel stuck, because you can always learn more, no matter how old you are. Also if you are not happy in the research environment or in your lab, you can leave and find someone who’s nicer and kinder to you.
JG & ME: What has been your proudest achievement as a neuroscientist in the past?
LQ: For me, definitely finishing this big clinical trial. This project has changed me in so many ways because I had so many opportunities to learn new things, not just on the scientific side but also managing and planning a clinical trial. And the biggest thing I learned was to meet 120 autistic people and see how different and how amazing they are.
JG & ME: What do you still want to achieve in the future?
SG: For me, I would love to link it all back up again. What inspired me to study neuroscience was working with people with PTSD but I have not yet taken any of this interoception work into this group.
LQ: My dream is to get some clinical training and combine clinical practice with research and do both. And I am doing a Master’s degree in psychology right now.
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