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Scientist Spotlight: Marina Picciotto, Ph.D.
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Scientist Spotlight, 2nd Edition, January 2014

From Our Field…

 Scientist Spotlight: Marina Picciotto, PhD


Interview conducted by: Christie D. Fowler, PhD

As Dr. Marina Picciotto moves on from her position as co-chair of the SRNT BSN network, we are grateful for her significant contributions over the past few years. We have asked her to provide us with some insight into her pathway to success, as well as her thoughts on the direction of the field. Dr. Picciotto received her PhD in Molecular Neurobiology from The Rockefeller University under the guidance of Dr. Paul Greengard and subsequently pursued her postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Jean-Pierre Changeux at the Institut Pasteur. Currently, Dr. Picciotto is Charles B.G. Murphy Professor and Deputy Chair in the Department of Psychiatry, and Professor of Pharmacology and Neurobiology at Yale University School of Medicine. Throughout her career, Dr. Picciotto has made significant advances to our understanding of the role of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in addiction, depression, feeding, and learning/memory. This leading-edge research has resulted in over 188 publications, many of which appear in high profile journals. Dr. Picciotto’s status as a leader in the field is not only evidenced by her research but also by the many prestigious honors and awards that she has received throughout her career, including the Jacob P. Waletzky Memorial Award and two NARSAD Investigator Awards. Moreover, Dr. Picciotto has served on the editorial board for multiple journals and is a member of the Institute of Medicine, Faculty of 1000 and the National Advisory Council on Drug Abuse. Dr. Picciotto’s responses to the interview from December of 2013 are below.


1. Why did you choose to become a scientist?  

I loved science from early on, but I didn’t know what a scientist did. When I was a senior in high school, I had to get an internship and got a job in a lab studying the neurobiology of feeding. Once I started working in neuroscience, I became a lot more focused and I was subsumed into life in a lab.  


2. What are your current research interests?  

My research focuses on the role of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in behaviors related to nicotine and opiate addiction, and in models of depression, learning and appetite, all of which are affected by tobacco smoking. The studies in our lab span molecular genetic, biochemical, cell biological, anatomical, electrophysiological, behavioral and human clinical studies. My philosophy is that strong basic neuroscience can be clinically relevant, and that translation of molecular and cellular neuroscience to understanding psychiatric and neurological illness can have real public health benefits.



3. How have your research interests evolved over the course of your career?  

At the time, it seemed like my choices of topic were all random, but it turns out that I have been working toward understanding the molecular basis of behavior from the earliest stages of my career, just from different vantage points. I started out doing behavioral pharmacology and measuring feeding behavior and when I got to college, my undergraduate advisor gave me a pipetteman and said, “you’re never going to understand how the brain works doing those experiments,” and introduced me to molecular biology. Once I started working on molecules, it satisfied the part of my brain that wants to be able to understand a system (in this case a molecular complex or signaling pathway) fairly extensively. At the same time, I became a neuroscientist because the brain is the most interesting organ, and I wanted to understand more complex phenomena, like behavior, so after doing molecular biology and biochemistry experiments for my PhD, and learning some drosophila genetics, I came all the way back around and put all my passions together by doing molecular genetic experiments in mouse models. This allowed me to study the molecules involved in behavior in great detail, while also studying neural circuits, connectivity and behavior. Combining these levels of investigation keeps me interested and excited, but also allows us to conduct studies that are rigorous in different ways.  


4. What do you view as the main challenges for your field? From your perspective, what do you view will be the next biggest breakthrough(s)?  

I think the biggest challenge to brain science is managing and making sense of the enormous datasets that are being generated from deep sequencing, functional and structural imaging and genetic studies in animal and human studies. Computational methods are still being developed to link these different levels of observation. We will also need to make breakthroughs in bioengineering to translate these studies into new treatments for brain diseases. I believe that the biggest breakthroughs in treatment of psychiatric and neurological illness in the next few years will come from applying new ideas in engineering to neurobiological systems.  


5. Do you currently or have you served as a scientific consultant for a company, as an editor for a journal, and/or a position in a scientific organization (e.g., SRNT, SfN, etc.)? Based on your experiences, what are the pros and cons participating in this respect?  

I have served as an editor for several journals (I was a Senior Editor at the Journal of Neuroscience and am currently a Handling Editor at Nicotine & Tobacco Research and the Journal of Neurochemistry). The advantages of doing editorial work is that you can learn about the current direction in your field and how reviewers (your colleagues) view the ideas and techniques that are pushing the field forward. The disadvantage is that this can take a lot of time and may pull you away from your own research, where you need to focus in order to be productive. Finding the right balance between service to, and a broader view of, your field, and focus on your own research is a lifelong effort, and one that can shift over time. I am also an active member of a number of committees in scientific organizations I am involved with, particularly SRNT and SFN. This is a terrific thing to do as a junior scientist. It lets you get to know your colleagues beyond just their published papers, and it lets them know you and how you think about your field. Again, it can take a significant amount of time, so balance is important, but getting involved actively with a scientific organization relevant to your work is a way of becoming integrated into your scientific community, even as a young scientist.  


6. Have you achieved a balance between work and personal priorities? How do you prioritize work and non-work activities?  

The balance between the many activities in life is one that is very personal and which every person has to determine for themself. What works for one person may drive another person crazy. For me, it was important to have a family life, enjoy my daughter and be there for her while she was growing up, and that required me to spend evenings and weekends at home. For another person, that might have been an unacceptable sacrifice. At the same time, I was not a stay at home mom, and came back to the lab very soon after my daughter was born because staying away from science would have been very hard for me. I also continued to give seminars, attend meetings and travel. Having excellent childcare at my university and a helpful partner allowed me to do that. For another person, not spending their early years at home with their kids might have been an unacceptable sacrifice. Balance is elusive and shifting, so making sure that you follow your own values and not those you think you “should” have is important.   One piece of advice I got from a colleague is that there is never a “good” time to have children, so you should start a family and have children when you are ready to be a parent, not when it works with your career. There will always be obstacles, whether professional, financial or personal, so figure out what those are, and find as many strategies as possible for getting around them. There are many creative solutions.  


7. What strategies have you found to be most beneficial for managing all of your commitments?  

The first strategy is not to let things sit on your desk too long – get the little stuff done in those moments that are too short to concentrate on writing a paper or a grant and get them off your desk as quickly as possible. It is a truism, but learn how to delegate as soon as you can. If there is a task that can be taken care of by a student that will free up time for you to focus on a bigger project, go ahead and ask them to take it on. Finally, try to manage your perfectionism – learn what is essential to do with perfect attention to detail, and learn which details are not as important. For example, I go through data that will go into a grant or a paper with an eye on every detail, but I do not spend as much time or attention on routine clerical tasks.  


8. In your opinion, what is the best balance of postdocs, graduate students, and technicians?  

I don’t think there is a perfect mix or balance, but I never invite anyone to join the lab unless I know that there is someone who can supervise and mentor that person currently in the lab. For an undergraduate, that person may be a graduate student or postdoc, for a new postdoc, that person might be a more senior postdoc or more senior research fellow. Even if the person joining the lab has a lot of experience, it is good to have a buddy to share data with and to learn about the laboratory culture.  


9. What advice would you have for students starting their academic career? What qualities do you look for when recruiting graduate students or postdocs?  

A love of science is essential for starting an academic career in research, but it is not the only, or most important, quality for success. One of the most useful characteristics for a successful academic researcher is the ability to see things through all the way to completion. I have seen brilliant scientists fail because they could not overcome their perfectionism and get a paper submitted and published. I have also seen very smart scientists put off submitting a grant until they had all the data they thought was necessary, which resulted in running out of money before the grant was funded.   An important mentor of mine once told me that "Genius is seeing what others have seen, and thinking what they have not."  In my lab, I look for smart people who think creatively but who can also translate that creativity into feasible experiments (as demonstrated by a track record of publishing their studies).  


10. What advice would you have for postdoctoral trainees transitioning into faculty positions?  

The first few years as a new faculty member were some of the most scary for me, and the first time I ever felt like I might have a bit of the imposter syndrome. I knew how to do experiments and think  about science, but I hadn’t been taught most of the other information or skills necessary to run a lab. Get as much information as you can about the promotion process at your university early on, and find an older colleague to tell you the things everyone already “knows” so you won’t be surprised when the time comes for promotion. Be ready to be a jack-of-all trades for a few years, being the engine behind the experiments in your new lab while also writing grants and lecturing. Once you have shown the scientific world that you can be creative and productive on your own by publishing your first papers, you will be able to attract good people to work with you.

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