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Neuroscience: The Importance of Mentorship by Dr. Wendy A. Suzuky posted in Perreault Magazine

The Brain and its Potential
I’ll never forget that first day of class. Marian stood in front of her blackboard
like a science rock star; slim, athletic, with a blonde bouffant hairdo that made her look even taller than she was. Even more memorable was what was sitting on the desk in front of her. It was a flowered hat box. As she welcomed us to class and started to tell us about the brain, Marian slowly and dramatically lifted the lid of the hat box, and with her gloved hands she carefully pulled out a real preserved human brain. She told us that what she was holding in her hands was the most complex structure known to mankind.
I was mesmerized. Marian described her groundbreaking work, which she began in the late 1950’s. She and her colleagues were trying to find evidence that the adult brain could change in response to the environment. To investigate this radical idea, they raised rats in what they called “enriched environments” with lots of toys, space and lots of other rats—it was like the
Disney World of rat cages. Marian Diamond’s research demonstrated that compared to rats raised in “impoverished” environments with no toys, smaller space and only a few other rats, the outer covering of the brains of the rats raised in the enriched environments actually grew and got thicker. This was revolutionary; the prominent belief at the time was that adult brain could not change at all. Marian’s benchmark finding helped usher in a new era in the study of what we now call brain “plasticity” – or how the brain changes in response to the

SCIENCE MENTOR: Marian was not only my science mentor, she was an extraordinary teacher and role model. But what I have come to realize in the years since I graduated from college is that one of the biggest lessons I learned from her didn’t reveal itself until long after I graduated.
The first inkling of this lesson came when I was a graduate student and I started to hear complaints from fellow female graduate students that there were just not enough women role models. This was typically followed by comments about how difficult it was to succeed in science as a woman. I remember thinking, “I don’t’ know what they are talking about—of course women can make it in science!” I was oblivious to their concerns until years later, when I began applying for faculty positions myself and realized how few women there were in the departments
I was applying to. It was a depressing realization that while 50% of my graduate class in Neuroscience was women, on average only 28% of the faculty in neuroscience departments are women. It was only then that I realized that I had had the remarkable luxury of having such a prominent female role model in Marian during my formative college days. I had irrefutable evidence that women could indeed make it in science and in a spectacular way. In fact, Marian achieved what I like to call the “trifecta” of an academic life. She had a family (4 kids no less!), a vibrant research program and a remarkable teaching record. To me, she was not an exception. It was clear that a woman could make an impact in science, and I expected the same for myself.

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