Mollie Woodworth gives in to genetics and becomes a cheerleader.

Only I Knew

Mollie Woodworth is bursting at the seams to tell the world about her brain research.

30 Second Science with Mollie Woodworth

We give Mollie Woodworth 30 seconds to describe her science and she tells us about mouse brains.

10 Questions with Mollie Woodworth

We ask Mollie Woodworth 10 questions and she insists that she loves mice.

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Mollie, Laura, and an Instructional Film!

About two seconds after meeting Mollie in person, you are not likely to be surprised that she is a cheerleader. She is so full of positive energy, it’s not much of a stretch to picture her cheering enthusiastically for her team. I am willing to bet that most people don’t look at Mollie and assume that she is, in fact, an accomplished neuroscientist at a top university—but being predictable has never ranked high on Mollie’s to-do list. And isn’t it nice to know we don’t need to waste our time doing just what is expected of us too?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my rugby game.

Just kidding. But, hey, maybe someday!

Solving this problem

I wanted to highlight a question asked by Barb on my question thread, and share a little about what it’s like to be a biomedical scientist working on basic research problems with possible applications to disease therapies. Here’s the question Barb asked:

“Mollie, I’d like to pick your brain for resources. I have a son, 30, MIT alum, PhD physics. He has incurred brain damage… If it were your brother, what would you do for him?”

Because my lab’s explicit long-term research goal is to be able to fix diseased and damaged brain circuitry, we get questions like this with some frequency. A few of our postdoctoral fellows did their graduate work in our field, and they talk about the times they answered the lab phone to find a patient or a distraught parent on the other end, begging them to help. We hurt every time we get questions like this, because we don’t have the luxury of being snake oil salesmen with a cure for anything and everything. All we want is a cure for this one tiny corner of human suffering, but we don’t even have that in hand.

I’m a teaching fellow this semester for a class my Ph.D. advisor is teaching, called “Repair and Regeneration in the Mammalian Brain.” We were honored a few weeks ago to host a visit by Travis Roy, who injured his spinal cord in his first college hockey game for Boston University in 1995, and who’s now a motivational speaker and founder of the Travis Roy Foundation, which provides help for people with spinal cord injuries (SCI) and money for SCI research. Travis told the students that his goal is to get a few of them to go into medicine or research, and that he wants them to be part of the next generation that solves this problem once and for all. And I was sitting in the back, tearing up, because I feel so inadequate in the face of the magnitude of the problem. If I could, I would repair spinal cords and fix Travis Roy tomorrow. But I don’t know how, and all the brilliant people in my lab don’t know how, and all the brilliant people in my field don’t know how.

In my time as a graduate student, I have gone to many seminars and met many of the eminent scientists in the brain repair field, and I know that most of them—maybe all of them—believe that we will be able to repair diseased and damaged brains in the near future. Maybe we’ll be able to cure some diseases before others, and maybe there are some that will elude us for a long time, but they (and I) believe that this problem is ultimately tractable. My advisor likens the problem to building a house: at the moment, we’re setting up the frame and figuring out where the doors and windows go, but one day we will put up the walls and install light switches and pick the perfect color of blue for the dining room.

I know that optimism alone does not save lives. I have come to this realization head-on in the past few months, as my beautiful, lively little mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. As a scientist, I am aware that the statistics on breast cancer survival are quite good, and that research has led to a bevy of new therapies that extend remission and improve quality of life. As a daughter, I think this is completely inadequate—they are talking about your mother, the odds of survival need to be 100%, and, also, they should not have to stick her with any needles or cause her any pain in the course of completely removing any trace of cancer from her body.

So for my mother, I am doing the only things I can—making sure she is cared for, and not afraid, and knitting her lots of soft, slouchy hats so she can feel confident and loved. And for people with ALS and SCI, I am also doing what I can. For now, that means reassuring them that the smartest, most hard-working people I know are devoting their lives to solving this problem.

Cheerful

Who is Mollie Woodworth? Well, she was responsible for the first pom-poms we ever had in the “Secret Life” studios. I know that for a fact.

And she knits a mean DNA scarf.

But several months after we interviewed Mollie, this is how I remember her.

She is the young girl who sat in the bleachers, off to herself, with her nose in a book, while the rest of her family screamed their heads off at high school sporting events.

She is the grown-up woman who brings dinosaur valentines and cake to her colleagues at a high-powered Harvard University neurological lab. She is the researcher who loves her fuzzy lab mice, but who is more than willing to slice up their little brains to look for ways to treat neurological diseases in humans.

And she is absolutely full of cheer… whether she’s talking about the fabulous peanut butter pie she ate with her husband at TGI Friday’s or when she’s screaming her head off at an MIT basketball game (as you know by watching her video “The Blood Will Tell,” she gave into genetics and is now carrying on the family business).

I’m nowhere near as sunny as Mollie. But when we worked with her, and when I think about her now, I’m cheerful.

Ask Mollie your questions

Q: How is neuroscience going to change the landscape of age related diseases? Also do you think it's possible eventually to map and regenerate neurons in a predictable manner in the cortex?

Mollie Woodworth (MW): 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: 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?

MW: 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: 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?

MW: 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: 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?

MW:

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: 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?

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

MW: 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: What’s the hardest move that your squad performs?

MW: We tried some really challenging group stunts in camp last year. 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: Mollie, how can you cheer at MIT if you go to Harvard? Don’t you have to be a current student there?

MW: 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.

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