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Ask Mollie Your Questions

ByTom MillerThe Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Click here for Mollie’s profile.

If you ask a really amazing question, she might even cheer for you!

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So show some spirit—ask Mollie your questions in the Comments section of this post.

Q: Sherry M.

Hi Mollie! I was so excited to see you videos. You are famous with the folks here in Pickerington. We are so proud of you. When can you come and do another guest lecture???

A: Mollie Woodworth

I don’t even know yet when I’m coming home for Christmas — when does school let out for Christmas break? I would love to come in and talk!

My mom said you stopped by the other day and gave her some DVDs, one of which she popped in the mail to me. I can’t wait to see it! Well… depending on how totally foolish I look, which I don’t entirely recall.

Also, the members of my lab were thinking of starting a 50s-style girl group called the Vibra-Tones (because the mouse brain slicer is called a vibratome). So maybe we will have a mouse brain video sooner than you think.

Q: Gary

Hi Molly

How is neuroscience going to change the landscape, of age related diseases. Also do you think its possible eventually, Map and regenerate neurons in a predictable manner in the cortex?

A: Mollie Woodworth

I do think it will be possible to regenerate neurons predictably in the cortex, and so do many (most? maybe all?) of the scientists in the field. We know that there are progenitors (stem cells) that reside in the cortex in adult humans, but they don’t usually produce neurons. We are looking for strategies to push them toward generating neurons rather than the other cells that they would prefer to produce in adults, then we hope to use the knowledge we’ve gleaned from development to push those newborn neurons toward a particular subtype.

Overall, I think that neuroscience research will have a huge impact on the treatment of age-related nervous system diseases. There are a lot of people doing really insightful work on different diseases right now — at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference, which attracts 30,000 neuroscientists each year, there’s a whole section on disease research. The more we know about the mechanisms of these diseases, the more we will be able to devise treatments for patients.

Q: Andrew O.

Science and engineering have many similarities but also quite different challenges. What attracted you to science as opposed to engineering?

I’m curious to know what your take, as a neuroscientist, is on whether humans and animals have free will or whether our brains are essentially computers with our actions and thoughts determined by the laws of physics?

Lastly, do you have an opinion on the best way to convince people that science has more answers than superstition?

A: Mollie Woodworth

So my husband is an engineer (an aerospace engineer), and I’ve been struggling to come up with the essential differences in approach between the two of us that illustrate why I’ve always wanted to be a scientist and he’s always wanted to be an engineer. The best I can do is this — he and I played several games of miniature golf on vacation last summer. I approach mini golf like a scientist: I carefully survey the hole and note possible routes and potential pitfalls, then pick the most elegant, clever route, line up the ball just right, and play. My husband plays like an engineer: he looks for the shortest line to the hole and bashes at the ball until he gets there. (Note: over three games of mini-golf, I beat him by six strokes.) Scientists value elegance and brevity of solutions, but ultimately we’re more like artists — we can sort of live in a happy little cloud world discovering things of dubious practical value. Engineers lead messier lives, but they’re closer to the action.

I do absolutely believe in free will, and I think the evidence points against our brains even being wired in a deterministic manner, let alone functioning in that way. The connectivity of the brain is set up genetically, but it’s not determined in a particularly fixed way — there’s a lot of fuzziness and randomness that goes into actually forming the connections. Actually, the thing I find amazing is that people’s brains function so similarly, given that the connectivity between any two people is so different.

I don’t know the best way to convince people that science has better solutions than superstition, other than relentless education. Teaching people to think critically and giving them the tools to evaluate evidence-based claims definitely works — it’s just not easy to do.

Q: Sherry

Mollie, I am 55 years old and have neurodegeneration due to advanced cerebral small vessel disease. I understand you work on mice and I’m not a mouse, but would you like my brain? Seriously.

A: Mollie Woodworth

I wouldn’t even know the first thing to do with a human brain! They’re a lot bigger than mouse brains.

There was a famous patient called H.M. whose brain was dissected and sectioned live on the internet last winter (following his death from natural causes). I thought it was really cool, but I can’t imagine the pressure — a human brain is not exactly something you can easily get another of.


Q: Ms. Naymark’s class

My students had many questions for you. Here are a few of them:
1) What inspired you to study neuroscience?
2) How many slices do you get out of a mouse brain?
3) What do you want to do when you are done with school?
4) Have you ever gotten attatched to a mouse and not wanted to hurt it?
5) Are you a flyer or a base when you cheer?

A: Mollie Woodworth

1. I loved to read when I was in junior high and high school, and I read my way through the Columbus (Ohio) Public Library’s science section. I read a book called “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker, and I thought it was fascinating. But I really decided I wanted to be a scientist when I took freshman biology from a fantastic teacher (shout-out to Ms. McClarren!).

2. I usually cut baby mouse brains, and I can get about 60 sections (of 50 microns each) from each brain — I can cut many more from an adult mouse brain, which is much bigger. It takes about 45 minutes to cut one brain on the deli slicer machine.

3. Eventually, I want to be a college professor and do research and learn new things every day for the rest of my life. That’s still pretty far away, though — I have to finish my PhD, then complete a 3-5 year postdoctoral fellowship in another lab.

4. I used to get very anxious when I had to do work with live mice, and I had some mice that I used for behavior experiments when I was an undergraduate that I really liked. (One of them liked to ride around in my lab coat pocket.) But I’ve become less anxious as I’ve had to do more work — I think it’s probably similar to medical students becoming less worried about blood as they finish medical school and become doctors. I really like my mice, but I know that they are research subjects, not pets.

5. I’m a base. The squad likes to fly me when they need a good laugh — I’m a little afraid of heights, and I don’t have very good balance! But I’m very strong, so being a base works well for me.

Q: Kolbert

Hi Mollie,
Do people ever not take you seriously because of your cheerleading? Is that an obstacle you’ve had to overcome? If so, how have you dealt with that?

A: Mollie Woodworth

I haven’t had to deal with that very often, because I’ve been a cheerleader in college and grad school, so people who meet me usually know about my work as a scientist before they know I’m a cheerleader. I think it would be different at the high school level, where people tend to know about someone’s extracurriculars before her academic interests.

I did get my first lab job because of my association with the squad — the postdoc I worked with the summer after my freshman year in college picked me to work with him because I’d written that I was a cheerleader in the application, and he found that amusing. I don’t recall doing anything special once I got there to convince him I was also a good scientist, but I don’t tend to worry about those sorts of things too much. I just have to be a good scientist — people will adjust their snap judgments eventually.

Q: Jessie

Have you ever hurt yourself cheering? Do you think cheerleading is getting too dangerous?

A: Mollie Woodworth

Oh, absolutely. I’m a base, so my injuries are more the low-level chronic type than the dramatic bone-breaking type, but I have a very bad shoulder and a few other things after eight years of cheerleading. The joints of the human body were definitely not designed for cheerleading.

I do think cheerleading (like gymnastics and other similar sports) can be very dangerous, and I think it’s important for squads to be serious about safety. We are lucky to have access to the gymnastics team’s spring floor, and we always practice stunts there until we’re confident we can stick them 100% of the time. Even so, there were a few major injuries in my eight years with the squad — a torn ACL, a broken arm, and a broken ankle. I love stunting, and I think it can be done safely, but I think squads have to be realistic about what they can handle.

Q: Sophie

Hi Mollie –
What’s the hardest move that your squad performs?

A: Mollie Woodworth

We tried some really challenging group stunts in camp last year — you can see a similar one on Youtube here:…

We were also trying some pyramids where the flyers did a back flip to land on top of the pyramid, which ended in everybody getting lots of bruises and one of the flyers banging her head. It was pretty cool, though.

Q: Guest

Mollie, How can you cheer at MIT if you go to Harvard? Don’t you have to be a current student there?

A: Mollie Woodworth

Officially, I was a member of the squad from 2002-2006, when I was an undergrad at MIT. Since I’ve been at Harvard, I came back to perform at a year-end show (2007 and 2008), and in 2009 and 2010, I coached the squad. But coaching didn’t get me out of wearing a uniform and cheering.

Q: Guest

I commented on the blog instead of here, but I am definitely curious to learn more about the DNA scarf.

A: Mollie Woodworth

The pattern is free, and can be found here:

It’s not too difficult, and it’s pretty popular among scientist knitters and knitters who love scientists — there are currently 708 DNA scarves on .