A Discussion with Dr. Stephanie Caligiuri, a neuroscientist, nutritionist, and the host of the People’s Scientist Podcast!
Dr. Stephanie Caligiuri is from Winnipeg, Canada, currently working in the Paul Kenny Lab specializing in Neuroscience at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC. Dr. Caligiuri specializes in researching how the brain impacts addiction and mental health. She has published papers in multiple prestigious journals, such as Nature (check out here). She shared a lot of insights about her research and work as well as her story with us in this interview, which is brought to you by Jordan Van Wyk and Molly Lu.
BioTEC: What initially motivated you to pursue a career in research?
Dr. Caligiuri: I probably took a different path than most people, as my studies have involved different disciplines: nutrition, physiology, and neuroscience. I was initially fascinated with nutrition, I see it as a way that people can promote their health; they can take their health in their own hands by having this knowledge. But I quickly realized that the career as a dietitian was too repetitive and dogmatic for me. So I began looking into different career options, and I realized I could be more effective at helping people through scientific research.
But I think from nutrition to neuroscience, this path was a natural progression as I gradually realized the biggest hurdle to patient well-being was behavior modification. I have studied diets that could help with heart disease, kidney disease, done clinical trials as well as nutrition counseling, and I found that the biggest hurdle to their health was addiction ie: junk food addiction, nicotine or alcohol addiction. There is a great gap for us to understand how the brain impacts our behavior and addictions. What we have to offer patients with disordered eating or drug addictions is so far behind what is critically vital. That is why I wanted to study behavioral neuroscience.
BioTEC: Would you say it is curiosity or willingness to help people plays a bigger factor in motivating you to do your work?
Dr. Caligiuri: I believe both are very important. I would say I am motivated because I want to advance patient care for people. What always stuck with me was a piece of advice from a supervisor of mine: in research, the scientific discoveries I make have the potential to impact people who are beyond my lifetime, or who I never met. The amount of lives you can impact by doing some experiments in the lab is sometimes much more than you would think. In terms of curiosity, it drives me more if I get into a project. Currently, I have several cool projects going on, and I formulate hypotheses and my curiosity drives me more to seek the answer to those hypotheses.
BioTEC: Did you have any motivational figures in your journey?
Dr. Caligiuri: Honestly I tried to think of a role model or someone I looked up to, but I don’t think I had one. Maybe because I never spent enough time searching for a role model. But I really have not met someone who embodies everything I want to be, ie: is very successful in science but also good at science communication and who won a Nobel prize as well. So instead, I think that my role model is who I thought I could be in 10 years, it is probably someone I fabricated, who is a great science educator, communicator, and researcher.
BioTEC: Could you tell us more about the research areas you are focused on?
Dr. Caligiuri: I do research in the Paul Kenny lab at Mount Sinai Hospital, and we do a diverse range of research. Currently, we have around 15 post-docs and a handful of graduate students, and everyone has 3-4 projects of their own.
I personally research alcohol dependence, nicotine addiction, eating behavior, mental health, and how the female and male brains differ. One of my projects is focused on female-specific alcoholic addiction. The brain is such a black box as we have so much to still discover. What we have found is that male brain is different from the female brain for many reasons, and these differences contribute largely to behavior and especially to the development of alcohol dependence. The female brain appears to differ in how it responds to stress and anxiety, and these factors might increase the propensity for alcohol dependence. In the past with my female patients, I found they tend to drink in order to cope with life’s stress. However, in men, this reason for drinking is less common. On the other hand, I also study nicotine addiction and how this impacts the brain and overall health.
BioTEC: What are some of the developments you are expecting to see in your field of research? For example, how is CRISPR technology, which is very trending right now, play into the field you are researching?
Dr. Caligiuri: CRISPR is far off in terms of treating addiction in humans. We have seen CRISPR being investigated as a cancer therapy in humans right now. One day I hope we can see effective CRISPR therapies for mood disorders and addiction. The focus of the industry right now seems to be on the development of effective drugs for addiction and mental health. Researchers are trying to develop safer drugs to reduce drug dependence. For example, methadone for opioid dependence. However, at present, our ability to understand the brain is so far behind what is vital to help people. However, funding for addiction research can sometimes limit our capabilities to find new therapeutics.
BioTEC: You mentioned funding is something that can be improved, what would be some other major obstacle in the field?
Dr. Caligiuri: The translatability to the clinical setting. For example, in the field of nutrition, kidney disease, and heart disease, this research is more patient-oriented and translatable to the patient. Researchers usually formulate an experiment with the disease or the patients in mind, and the conclusions have some translatability. However, that is less common for neuroscience. Scientists are still trying to figure out what certain brain regions do and this could be hard to translate to people. For example, we know the HPA axis in the brain may contribute to stress anxiety and depression. However, how to target this region specifically without targeting anything else in the brain or body is still hard to figure out. We need more clinical trials conducted and funded, as you know, clinical trials are usually expensive. I think the translatability in neuroscience from research to clinical trials right now is the biggest hurdle.
BioTEC: How do you hope your research will benefit others or be used in future applications?
Dr. Caligiuri: My Ph.D. publications are easier to see the benefits because they were clinical trials and some nutrition clinical trials. For example, I showed that 30 g of ground flaxseed eaten daily may reduce blood pressure in patients on blood pressure-lowering medications. So patients can take that knowledge and implement that into their life or practice. The postdoc research I hope will lay the foundation for understanding addiction and eating behavior. The impact on patients is not as obvious or easily translatable as my previous research. Developing new therapeutics or looking at different facets to one’s health could be a patient-oriented direction from my current work. I also love to mentor other students. I teach them different scientific skills and how to question the world. I aim to help them along their educational journey in any way I can.
BioTEC: What would you say is the best moment in your lab?
Dr. Caligiuri: I would say there are two actually. One is when we had that paper published in the Nature journal, that paper was the culmination of so many people’s work over such a long period of time. The other moment is our mentor received approval to test his therapeutic in clinical trials, which is a very difficult hurdle to overcome as the failure of small molecules to go from animal to human is really high. And now he was approved to go to clinical trials, so this was very impressive and we also had a great time celebrating that.
BioTEC: How would you say about the atmosphere of your lab?
Dr. Caligiuri: Every lab is different, some are more individualistic while others might be more collaborative. In my lab, it is a nice combination. I am very lucky to be in this lab as when I first joined, I didn’t have a lot of behavioral neuroscience skills since I came from a physiology and nutrition background. Yet everyone in the lab is absolutely wonderful at teaching, and everyone has a different set of skills we can learn from. In this way, my lab has a great team aspect. However, everyone has their own project, so we can also work individually. I think it is a perfect balance.
BioTEC: Mentioning labs, how did you choose your lab and do you have any advice for undergrad students for choosing a lab?
Dr. Caligiuri: My experience in choosing a lab differed every time. For my Master’s, I remained in the same department as my undergrad. I talked to different professors, asking questions like: Why are you in research? Why are you passionate about what you are working on? What would a day in your lab look like? So, in the second year of my undergrad, I applied for summer internships in different research labs. The same with the third year. In the end, I was able to gain expertise in different labs and choose the best lab based on my interactions. I chose based on who inspired me the most. For my Ph.D., I wanted to switch disciplines and learn clinical research, so I chose someone prestigious that accomplished both.
When it comes to choosing a lab for the postdoc, I was told that “you have to move up, you have to find someone that has the skills, connections, and funding that can help propel your ideas forward.” Their connections with other experts and professionals might play a big role in you being successful. Keeping this in mind, I knew I would need to try moving toward a bigger institute. During that time, I read an amazing paper written by the researcher, who is now my postdoc mentor, and that paper is probably the best I have read. It was so fascinating and very inspiring. However, getting him to take me into his lab was not easy. My Ph.D. supervisor had to reach out to him on my behalf after my several failed attempts. I wrote a few grants and applied for several scholarships. Only when I was successful in obtaining the scholarship grant, was I accepted to my current lab.
BioTEC: As a researcher, how do you manage your energy between the lab and your life out of the lab to maintain a balance?
Dr. Caligiuri: Well, my postdoc has been the most demanding, out of all the stages. I was in Winnipeg, Canada during my education, then I moved away from my family to start in my postdoc lab in NYC. In a way, I have more time on my hands as family obligations are not as much anymore. So, this is one reason I can dedicate more time to my work. The other reason is that I love the research I am doing, so to me, it is not exhausting. However, I will say though, it is challenging to do a podcast and be in a lab at the same time. The podcast might take around 20 to 25 hours a week, the lab might take anywhere around 40 to 70 hours depending on how experiments are going. Given the time commitment, in the end I could be tired, however, I think it is definitely worth it.
I also love to dance, if you notice I have incorporated dance into some of my social media posts. No matter how busy I am, I would always make time for dance classes. I feel that keeps me happy and healthy. In terms of the social aspects to my life, I have become great friends with the people in my lab, so when I am working in the lab, I am also hanging out with my friends.
I don’t know if I honestly am balancing, I think it comes down to the saying “if you want it bad enough, you will make time for it.” I would summarize it as focusing on excellence in one area at a time: We all have different hats we wear for different responsibilities. For example, I have my “ daughter” hat. Now I am living away from my family, when I go back and visit my parents for a few days, I will focus on wearing the “ daughter” hat and put all my attention on being a good daughter during those few days. I find it is more effective to choose one thing to focus on at a time and do really well as opposed to trying to do 10 things at once. And I find that once I used this approach I actually had better relationships with my parents as we shared so many good memories as opposed to when I lived with them. So in conclusion, I think we need to determine which hat we will wear and put in the effort.
BioTEC: We are impressed that you also host a podcast, could you elaborate a little bit on what got you started on the podcast?
Dr. Caligiuri: As you know, when I was in Winnipeg I studied nutrition. I had a lot of opportunities for knowledge translation and public education. I would go on the local radio to talk about nutrition facts that I think the public should know about in order to help them promote their health. I did public outreach programs for nutrition education, etc. However, I didn’t have that outlet when I moved to New York. So the podcast was my way of carrying that on. In addition, science communication is an important duty for all scientists to share evidence in this world of misinformation. The podcast is an effective way of knowledge translation.