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June 2020 Lead

Friday, June 19, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Jane Sharer Maier
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June 2020
GWIS LEAD is a GWIS periodical profiling women leaders in science.  Subscribe
Dr. Yasmin Hurd talks perseverance, passion for understanding the brain, and the gift of asking questions
Dr. Yasmin Hurd is the Ward-Coleman Chair of Translational Neuroscience and the Director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai.

Dr. Hurd's multidisciplinary research investigates the neurobiology underlying addiction disorders and related psychiatric illnesses.  Her lab uses a translational approach to examine molecular and neurochemical events in the human brain and comparable animal models in order to ascertain neurobiological correlates of behavior.  A major focus of her research is directed toward risk factors of addiction disorders including genetics as well as developmental exposure to drugs of abuse.

Could you please tell me a little bit about yourself and your journey to research and science?

I always tell people that I was a weird kid. I loved science; even though I didn’t really understand scientific careers or what was needed to become a scientist, I knew that I loved science. As I said, I was a weird kid—I was playing with ants, trying to figure out how they moved, and was also very interested in behavior. I was interested in why people acted a certain way, and I knew that understanding their brain could help me understand them. Nobody in my family is a scientist or a physician, but I was curious about everything around me. I remember I took honors German in high school so I could read original science research papers that were written in German. I was a very big geek in that way. I have no idea why. 

I just kept asking questions. In college, I took care of the animal facility for my work-study. I would ask questions about the research being done on the mice and rats that I was taking care of, and one professor told me that I asked better questions than his postdocs; he invited me to join the research group. I explained that I had to work to earn money, so he set it up so that I could get paid while doing research; my work-study became my research. This experience really got me started down this path and introduced me to more structured research.

Did your work-study experience motivate you to pursue a PhD?
Yes; my work-study really opened me up to the world of research. Many people in my life thought that since I liked science, I should be a physician. It’s funny; some people also thought that because I talked a lot, I would be a lawyer. But even though I am social and care about people, I learned that the neurological disorders that fascinated me back then and still do now, do not have treatments. For me, the fundamental aspect of science was not taking care of people daily. The question for me was: how can I change the course of someone’s life through understanding the disease and coming up with treatments? This became the driving force behind why I wanted to understand the brain more than being able to diagnose someone. Even if you spend hours talking to someone as a psychiatrist, most treatments that we have for schizophrenia or depression are still not the best; for addiction, it's even worse. I really think that a PhD has encompassed everything that I am: asking questions, being kind of stubborn in getting the answers, and thinking about a disease as a whole rather than each individual person.

How was your PhD experience and how did it shape your career?

Well, I did something unusual. There are a lot of reasons for me being here today in my role. And one of the reasons is that I left the United States and did my PhD at the Karolinska institute in Stockholm, Sweden. In the US, there was just so much prejudice and bias. When I first came to the US, being a Black girl who liked science in Brooklyn was very challenging. You didn’t get support, and that was constant throughout my career except for that college professor I mentioned. 

I met professor Urban Ungerstedt from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden who suggested that I do a PhD in his group. Dr. Ungerstedt was one of the scientists who helped to map the classic neurotransmitter systems in the brain, and he developed the now classic animal model of Parkinson's disease. He also developed a model to measure the levels of neurotransmitters in a living brain, termed in vivo microdialysis; he thought that my ideas on how to evolve this technique were great, so I ended up joining his group. Sweden was a completely new world for me—for the first time, no one cared that I was Black. In fact, it was the opposite. The assumption was that if you are American, then you must be the best. There was such a difference: people thinking that you are at a high bar and expect you to meet that bar rather than trying to push you down to not succeed. For me, it was great to just be able to focus on my science and rise to the level that they thought I could achieve. I don’t know if I had completed my PhD in the US, if I would still be in the same place today. I know other female and minority colleagues that dropped out back then. I don’t think people understand the amount of pressure you face, but they compare you to everybody else. It’s a very different experience. 

Training in a lab of someone who was quite famous in Sweden and was considered a great scientist was very helpful. I published a lot during my PhD, with mainly the two of us as coauthors, which is rare for a PhD. My PhD was unique in that way, and my mentor was really great at giving me freedom. However, I have to say there were also hard times when I had to get all of those experiments done by myself and my mentor was not around. I don’t want it to sound like everything was perfect because there were definitely challenges.

Publishing a lot and working on a novel research technique helped for finding a postdoc since I was offered a number of positions. The NIH at that time had a fellowship that was highly competitive which provided significant funding, so I was happy to get that unique opportunity. 

How was the transition back to the US from Sweden in terms of science but also socially and culturally? 

There were definitely challenges initially in my post-doc training. When I got to the NIH, the PI whose lab I had chosen to work in basically gave me to another PI who wanted me to continue working with the technique that I had already used extensively during my PhD. However, I wanted to learn molecular biology, which was just developing at the time. I wanted to learn something new to add to what I already knew. It was a really traumatic time, being in a lab where the science I wanted to do wasn’t respected. So, I left. The fellowship gave me the independence and flexibility to change labs, and this opportunity was not usually available for postdocs at the NIH.

Unfortunately, I did not do my homework, and joined the lab of someone who was publishing a lot of Nature and Science papers and came off as charming, but when I came to the lab, it was a complete nightmare or worse. So, I switched again. I think that a lot of people think that if you are experiencing a terrible time in your postdoc, you have to stick it out, but I don’t believe that is good. A negative environment can kill your soul and your scientific drive. Also, those PIs are often not supportive of you anyway in the long run; they will not give you access to their network as they normally would for those with whom they have better relationships. Luckily, my new mentor was great. He gave me the freedom to pursue my interests and gave me the opportunity to learn the things that I wanted to learn, so I was grateful for that. The transition was tough just because it took me a while to be able to do the research that I wanted to do. People expected me to be a certain way and, in a sense, to be a technician, and they did not have my best interests at heart. Sometimes students and postdocs today forget that you have limited time to train, so you have to maximize that time. I was panicked and unhappy that I was not doing the research I wanted to do in the limited postdoc time, so I decided, “what the hell,” and made the move. 

On a social level, it was also tough going back to the US, because there were not that many Black scientists at the NIH at all. In DC—and it’s sad to say, in other places in the US as well—people were only used to seeing Black people as helpers and staff. I remember at the end of my time at the NIH, I started to put my own lab together as a staff fellow. One day I saw a line of cleaners at my door, fifteen people, I swear. And the guy comes to me and says, “Doc, could you tell them that you are a scientist here? They did not believe me”. That was a very sad day. Working as a Black scientist and as a woman was quite challenging at the NIH at that time. But I tried to keep my head focused on what I wanted to get out of my training, and I kept that at the forefront of my mind no matter what challenges I faced. And I kept coming back to that. I can’t say it was easy at all. But there were good things that came from my experience as well. I went to high schools in DC to teach students about the brain. It was important for the kids to see someone that looked different and happened to be a brain scientist. 

Yes, and there are many women and women of color that are in similar situations and face similar obstacles today. What would you say are some of the things that helped you make a transition when you had to and helped you get through these challenging times?

I think as you are living your life, you know that the world does not treat you equally, because you are a woman or because you are a woman of color. My mom used to say, “if you focus on the noise, you will never make it through.” A lot of negative things that people say and do are part of the “noise” that you can fall for and can make you distracted. You lose your focus, and before you know it, you’re out. Many people that I know got lost in the noise. And I did that myself since I was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. But I learned from my mistakes and I realized that when I focused on the negatives, the negatives won. And you can’t really overcome that. So, focusing on the positives—the positives for me were that I loved the brain, and I loved the science—and focusing on the things that I needed to do pulled me through. And it’s not that other things disappeared; I just refused to let them win. That’s why if you focus on the noise, you will never hear what you have to hear. And I would say another thing that I shouldn’t forget and that makes a difference: friends. A lot of my friends were not scientists, and they gave me perspective. They thought I was amazing because I am a neuroscientist. My non-science friends have definitely been important for me to get through difficult times. 

Great advice! So, the next step was you deciding to move back to Sweden to set up your lab there?

Yes, so my first lab was at the NIH, but that was not the place I wanted to spend my career. Also, I was getting different job offers. I did something that was a bit naive. I thought that when I was in Sweden, there was never any politics. So, I decided to go back to Sweden for about three years to get structured. There was a very big research grant for junior scientists that they never gave to foreigners. I decided if I get it, I’ll go to Sweden. I got it, three years turned into thirteen, and I made it all the way to full Professor at the Karolinska. But the irony is that, when I went there, there was politics. I was just not exposed to that before when I was a student. Are there better places to work than others? Absolutely. But every place has politics, you have to learn what the politics are, decide what you want to get involved in, figure out what is noise, and let go of those things. Everywhere you go, there will always be challenges, because no place is perfect. And as the junior scientist, I didn't realize a lot of things: politics, finances, figuring out how to make money, managing personnel. Being a successful scientist involved more things that go beyond science. Today in graduate school and postdoc training, you get more information about grant writing. Institutions should also teach trainees about finances and how to manage people. That’s an important skill set that I still don’t see being promoted in educating junior scientists. 

Absolutely! Teaching junior scientists how to manage finances, but also how to manage people is critical. When you are a professor, you are effectively responsible for the careers of junior scientists: PhD students, Master’s students, and postdocs. When these mentorship skills are lacking, it has a definite impact on the mentees.

Yes, absolutely. It’s like with parenting, the first kid is raised and parented differently than the 5th child! 

Oh yes, I am the first kid, I know! The first kid gets treated differently than the 4th!

Yes, so you know exactly what I’m talking about! I really think graduate school needs to incorporate those things, but they are not there yet. 

As you mentioned, the culture in Sweden was different from the US. How did you feel about that? 

Oh yes, completely. But you know the funny thing is that when I was in Sweden at that time, there were very few Black people. I remember when I first started in the pharmacology department at Karolinska, a person told me that they had another dark person at the Institute. When I finally met that dark person, he was a guy from Portugal that just happened to have black hair and black eyes. I was laughing hysterically. It was weird, but it was the first time when it was not a negative thing that you were Black. They liked you because you were Black. People wanted to meet me. It was unique to them, but in a positive way. I was happy there because I could be me without the negatives. Now things have changed in Sweden and in Europe at large, but back then, although I was the only Black person, it did not make me feel bad; the people made me feel welcomed. I definitely missed the US on a cultural level though. When I go back to Sweden, I ask myself, “How did I live in this provincial place?” which is funny since Stockholm is a big city. I miss my friends in Sweden though. I ended up having a really great lab there, and my many team members are now my close friends. My experience in Sweden was great not just for my scientific life, but it also made me feel that I did not have to be somebody I was not. In the US, for the White kids, I am not White; for Black kids, I’m not Black enough—I’m stuck in this limbo world. And coming from Jamaica, I was not African American. But in Sweden, I was not meant to fit in, and ironically, I felt good about that. I did not have to fit in any one group, and I could just be myself. 

Okay, so you spent thirteen years in Sweden at Karolinska, what were the major drivers that made you come back?

I remember one evening working late, which was nothing unusual. I got a call because Mount Sinai wanted to develop an addiction research center. I remember the person asking me if I would be serious about “moving back across the pond”. At that time, I was not necessarily looking to move back, but it was perfect timing. Karolinska was a great place, but they did not really train the next generation of scientists to come after them. Socialism is a great thing for medicine and for society in terms of equal access to education, for example, but you cannot do that for research. If you give the same small amount of money to everyone, research that needs more money and people who are not doing great research are all getting the same. I had to write ten small grants in Sweden, so I started writing for bigger NIH grants. To get an NIH grant when you are doing research abroad, you have to prove that you are doing something unique from what is being done in the US. My research focused on molecular studies of the human postmortem brain which few people were doing back then and studying the developmental effects of cannabis using animal models which was also not really being investigated at the time. I ended up having three NIH grants, which was pretty amazing. 

When I came to Mount Sinai for a visit, I was impressed with the potential to do translational research. My work is translational covering both human and animal models and they convinced me that this approach was their motto, and they would support my development of a research program. The addiction center did become a reality eight years later, and has since grown into the Addiction Institute that I head. 

Once you got to Sinai, how was the process of setting up your lab again and what were some of the lessons you learned along the way in setting up the Institute?

I wish that I had realized how much I needed the people on my team. When I came back to the US, the people in my lab had lives in Sweden that could not allow them to come with me, so I literally had to set up a lab from scratch again, and that was brutal. That took a long time. It’s funny because my first lab was very reflective of me; I was there side by side with my team members since I was with them in the lab as a young scientist. Now I was setting up the lab again, but I couldn’t be in the lab as much, because as a professor you have a lot of administrative duties. There were also a lot of things I have not done in the lab myself in a long time, so I had to go back to that as well. It took me a while to see that my lab was me.
Dr. Hurd with her team at Mount Sinai.
Okay, so now at Sinai you study addiction, and you talked about your longstanding interest in the brain. Why are you interested in addiction in particular and what drives you to do this kind of research?

I came to addiction in a weird way. It’s funny because in college my friends used to tease me because I never drank alcohol and would complain that the dorm parties never had any non-alcoholic drinks. When I said to them that I was going to focus my research on addiction, they teasingly asked me how can I study something I have no experience with? 

My interest in addiction stemmed from behavior. When I was studying Parkinson's disease, we would test the dopaminergic system by giving animals amphetamines or cocaine, and the profound effects they had on behavior just fascinated me. I remember that my family would tell me that if you do drugs, you will never succeed in life. But when I went to college, I saw a lot of kids that were doing drugs. I realized that everybody is not the same, that there are vulnerabilities for certain groups and communities. Addiction is a huge part of that, and the comorbidities with the other psychiatric disorders also fascinated me. What do these drugs do that changes the neural circuits, that puts people at risk of dying from their addiction, and can also trigger underlying psychiatric disorders? It was that combination that really brought me to study addiction. If a drug can induce a disorder, then we should be able to come up with some treatment. It is not like Huntington’s, where you have a genetic variant and you develop the disease. Here, it’s a drug-induced effect. And I was fascinated by how these drugs completely changed people's behavior. 

You said you were intrigued by Sinai’s translational pipeline from research to clinic. Are there any projects in your research that show a promising movement towards translation to the clinic?

Absolutely! For example, we have been studying the developmental effects of cannabis, and in our animal models we mainly study THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). However, cannabis contains many cannabinoids, so we decided to also study CBD (cannabidiol). We knew from our previous work that THC increased heroin self-administration in our animal models, but when we gave them CBD, we actually saw something different. It reduced their heroin-seeking behavior, and we were able to replicate the finding. We had not figured out how CBD is working, but I wanted to see if it could be effective in humans before we went down the path of figuring out the mechanism by which CBD may be exhibiting its effect. So, we started clinical trials. In our clinical trials we have replicated what we saw in our animal models. Not only did CBD decrease cue-induced craving, but it also reduced cue-induced anxiety. Just like in animal models there is something about CBD that lets it continue to have an effect on the body even when it’s not acutely present, and we saw that in our patients as well. Last year we received two huge grants to conduct larger clinical studies including neuroimaging to figure out how CBD is working in the human brain. So this is something we demonstrated in our animal models and post-mortem brains that we were able to translate into human clinical trials. We are now going back to animal models to figure out the mechanism.
Dr. Hurd holding a human brain.
That’s really cool! So how does your research fit into the national conversation about cannabis legalization?

In the past two years I have been on a number of TV shows; they interviewed me a lot, and I spoke with Sanjay Gupta on his show on CNN. Because I have been studying the developmental effect of prenatal and adolescent THC exposure, I was always in some discussion regarding the legalization of cannabis. All pro-cannabis people hated me because the data we showed suggest a negative long-term developmental impact of cannabis exposure. But then I started studying CBD, and showed that CBD can have beneficial effects, and they started loving me. My research is on both sides of the discussion, and I think that is what is important. Ideally, science should dictate policy. I was initially against legalization because of our developmental work. And at the end of the day—and I don’t care what people say—certain communities and individuals are still very vulnerable regardless of whether it’s legal or not. We are telling a lot of kids that cannabis is okay, and it is not. It does have an impact on their brain development. But I don’t think that it should be criminalized to the extent of locking people up, and especially Black and Brown men as historically has happened. Is there medicine with cannabis? Absolutely. But we need clinical trials, and that’s what I have been promoting. Just saying, “Cannabis helped me with my joint pain,” is not really medicine. I do give a lot of input to some of the discussions that are being held on this issue.

Do you think there is a movement toward a less politicized and more science-informed way of developing laws and policies?

I think it’s getting more and more that way. With stories like Charlotte Figi, for example, a little girl whose epilepsy was managed with cannabis, CBD really. And that’s what I try to tell people. When we call everything cannabis or marijuana, it is not correct, because CBD does something that might be the opposite of what THC does. A lot of the negative effects (e.g., intoxication) that we see is from the THC part of the plant. However, with some disorders, it is clear that a little THC might be helpful, but these effects are very specific, including some aspects of pain. CBD is definitely more beneficial, and that’s why we need the research and we need the data to frame things in terms of what is medicine and separate that from recreational cannabis. If an adult wants to use cannabis, it’s their decision as an adult, and it should not be criminalized. But there should be some restrictions as we have with cigarette smoking. We also have kids that are exposed to second-hand smoke from marijuana; I do feel for a lot of these kids who already don’t get an even shot at life, and there is now a drug in their brain. I just think that we are naive when we try to mix politics with people’s health, especially kids. I think people should not be put in jail for using cannabis, but it is still a potent drug that can affect the developing brain.
Dr. Hurd at TEDMED 2020
Okay, let’s pivot a little bit and talk about the job of being a professor. We all know the things we love about being scientists, so let’s talk about the things that are hard in this job. More specifically, what do you think are some of the things trainees need to prepare for and be aware of as they embark on this journey and seek to become successful scientists?

Oh, those are really tough. I think it’s challenging to be a scientist. If you don’t have a thick skin, it’s tough. By the nature of our field, you are criticized constantly, and it is very difficult. Also, there are attempts to address biases, but even at this stage of my career, being a Black woman is much tougher even though I’ve made it this far. I think making sure you have thick skin is very important, but it’s tough. Also, to be successful, you need to think about what the metric of success is in your field. The currency of our field is papers (which helps to get grants). And I think a lot of people don’t understand the currency of our profession. Is it discovery? Yes. But it has to fit within the currency of that field and help you be visible—i.e. discoveries have to be translated into papers. I do think that in our field, especially for women and people of color, visibility has been an issue. So, attend conferences, network, make yourself known to the people in your field. It’s really important to network and to be visible, because if you’re visible, they can't ignore you. They might not like you, but they can’t ignore you. 

At your level of achievement, do you still feel bias that gets injected into your work?

Sadly, I wish I could say no, but, unfortunately, I still live this. I still live it; I'll just say that. Am I successful? Yes. But it’s despite all of that. Do I go through frustrating days when I ask myself: “Why bother?” Yes. Unfortunately, it is still here. Our society has clearly changed a lot, and I am so happy to see more women in science now, more Black and Hispanic junior scientists. But I still see many minority students face the same things that I did, and I think it’s very sad these biases still exist. And although we are doing a better job at acknowledging some of that, and there are organizations that are trying to address the issues and make this problem more visible, there is still a long way to go. 

What do you think are some of the main things that should be done starting with peers, mentors and institutions to alleviate some of these roadblocks?

I think even though we [Mount Sinai] are a higher educational institution, if we really want to make an impact, we have to start younger. There are a number of programs exposing kids to science starting from junior high schools. The pipeline is the challenge; that challenge is not going to be met by the junior high teachers or politicians alone. I know for sure, if I hadn’t accidentally gotten my exposure, I don’t know if my interest would have pushed through to get me on this path. So exposure is critical. Institutions—even though we are at the end of the education ladder—need to have more programs to really reach out to young kids.

Absolutely! Is there anything else you would like to say to trainees and aspiring scientists that might be reading this to give them advice on how to advance their research careers?

You have to remember every day why you are doing this. Don’t let other people take away your passion. It is a challenging career, but we’ve been given a gift that very few people are given. There are very few scientists around the world. We are wired to ask questions in a certain way that brings us down this path. Look at that as a gift and make that passion drive you, so during those challenging times that will definitely come, you will get through it. I think that sometimes we allow other people to take away our joy. I also think that mentoring is critical. Find people who have your best interest at heart. Find multiple mentors who care about you, your career and your success. The more people who get to know you and the more people you tell what you want in life, the more people will help you get there if you are willing to work. We all want to help people who have ambition and work towards achieving their goals. So definitely find positive people. 

Last question to wrap this up. How do you find balance in your life with everything that you are working on?

I have no balance! It’s bad. I do think it’s important to have balance in life because life is short. Even though we love science, a lot of things can help us improve our science if we have other interests as well. And I do think that it will help you to be more successful because you are not thinking about the same thing 24-7.

But it’s very hard to achieve from what I understand!

It’s very hard to achieve. Do what I say, not what I do! 
Contributed by Gloriia Novikova
Copy edited by Rozzy Finn
GWIS Lead Coordinator - Vidya Narayanaswamy

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