David Ottenheimer won the 2016 Essay Contest with his essay "Modern neuroscience has the tools to treat psychiatric illness." He is currently a PhD student in the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where he studies the neural circuits that encode rewarding stimuli. In this Q&A, he shares with Lasker what inspired him to pursue a career in the field of psychiatric illness, how researchers should participate in science communication, and how he sees his future as a young scientist.
Q: For your essay topic, you chose to write about psychiatric illness, which is also your research focus. What inspired you to pursue research in this area?
A: Despite decades of research on the topic, we still have much to discover about how the brain directs behavior. Nowhere is this more apparent than the treatment of psychiatric illness. Many of the drugs we prescribe to psychiatric patients were discovered accidentally, and the precise way in which they modulate our brain’s activity to improve psychiatric symptoms is unknown. With a number of new technologies developed recently to probe the brain’s activity, I believe we are closer than ever to developing a better understanding of brain illnesses and better treatments for them. I see a lot of promise in neuroscience research to change the way we treat psychiatric illness in the near future, and I hope that my work on food consumption and substance abuse may produce better treatments for addiction of all kinds.
Q: What role do you think scientists and clinicians should play in communicating biomedical research advances to the broader society?
A: In order to get the press to cover a study, you need an obvious hook about how the research could have implications for society, which can lead to misconstruing or exaggerating the findings. It is important for scientists and clinicians to share not just the exciting and easily understandable developments, like a cure for a disease, but also the slow but steady march of progress that allows the breakthroughs to happen. The better the public understands what the day-to day-life is like for a researcher, the more they can recognize the incredible volume of research that culminates in medical advances. We can’t rely on press releases to convey these kinds of insights; we need every scientist and clinician to share their personal experiences. I think every researcher should take a moment periodically to think about how they could be more transparent to the people around them about their work — whether it’s sharing more details of an experiment with friends, writing a blog post, or more formal outreach — in order to increase public understanding of the tremendous challenges we face in research and the small victories we achieve every day.
Q: What would you say to MD and PhD students if they asked why they should participate in this essay contest?
A: Throughout the process of writing the essay, I talked to many of my peers and mentors about how the neuroscience technologies we use could benefit the treatment of psychiatric illness, and it led to many productive conversations about translation that wouldn’t have naturally arisen in the course of my day-to-day research. The actual writing of the essay was a great exercise in boiling down the scientific concepts I think about every day into an understandable format — a skill I hope to continue to apply. And since finishing and publishing the essay, I’ve had great conversations with nonscientists about what neuroscience research is like now and how treatment of psychiatric illness could be improved.
Q: What was your favorite moment at the 2016 Lasker Awards ceremony or the 2016 Breakfast at Lasker?A: I most enjoyed the Scholar’s Breakfast, where each of the trainees in attendance had the opportunity to ask the winners a question. The more intimate event humanized the honorees for me. It allowed me to see that despite their incredible accomplishments, the winners were not so extraordinary or exceptional that their success seemed impossible for any of the trainees in attendance or really any aspiring scientist to achieve. It also reminded me that there are many more intelligent, capable scientists than there are slots for Lasker Award winners. The Laskers were a wonderful opportunity to recognize scientists who have had very visible contributions to biomedical research, but, as each of the honorees mentioned, there were countless others whose work allowed them to stand where they are today.
Q: Do you feel confident about your future career as a scientist, beyond a PhD, in terms of opportunities, funding, and being able to secure the position you want? What are your biggest apprehensions?
A: The job market is competitive, but I have faith that I will be able to find the right position for me to continue researching psychiatric illness. Acquiring funding for research these days can require a little creativity — looking for private foundations that provide grants, seeking positions other than the typical faculty appointments — but I think this reflects a changing rather than a dwindling research landscape. My biggest apprehension would be sacrificing my ability to design and perform my own experiments in order to stay in research, an outcome that could occur if the individual-based funding we enjoy now shifts toward more restricted outcome-based projects, but hopefully society will continue to understand the importance of supporting creative individuals (a strategy to which many of the Lasker winners credited their success at the awards ceremony last year). Even if an opportunity to head my own research lab eludes me, my experiences in the past year, including the Lasker Essay Contest and also volunteering in local schools in Baltimore, have shown me how important it is to have researchers share their passion for and knowledge of science with members of the public, and I will remain open to the idea of a career in science policy and outreach.