From Ballerina To Brain Scientist

By Jennifer Whitesell

Jennifer Whitesell

Editor’s Note: Jennifer Whitesell is a scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and serves as a Science Communication Fellow at Pacific Science Center.

I didn’t always know I wanted to be a scientist.

Growing up, I trained as a ballerina, but by the time I started high school I had begun to struggle with depression. I ended up quitting ballet, dropping out of high school, and moving out of my childhood home halfway through my junior year. I found a job as a go-kart mechanic, then as a bank teller. I was married with a daughter by the time I was twenty.

A few years later, after getting treatment for depression and spending some time as a stay-at-home mom, I started taking college courses and found myself fascinated by biology and psychology. I wanted to understand how the brain works – partly because of my depression but also because I wanted to understand how the outside world is represented inside the brain, what kinds of information are needed to form memories, and what goes wrong in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. These are all difficult questions for which we don’t currently have answers. I decided to become a neuroscientist so I could work on these interesting problems.

All the input to our brain comes through our senses. If we want to understand how the brain works we can start by asking questions like “how is sensory input routed through the brain?” As a PhD student, I studied networks of cells in the olfactory (smell) system. It turns out, each of our senses sends information to our brain in a unique way. The sense of smell is distinctive in that it has an unusually direct pathway to emotions and memories. Olfactory information does not pass through the brain’s “gatekeeper,” the thalamus, as all other senses do. This means that we experience smells in a more “raw” form than our other senses, and understanding the difference between the way our brains encode smell compared with our other senses can give us insight into how memories are formed and how networks of cells process information.

Olfaction is one of the earliest systems to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s disease. My current research is focused on understanding why different cells and systems are damaged before others, which could help us move closer to developing new treatments and eventually a cure.

I love being a scientist, but I am still a dancer at heart.

About the Exhibit - Want to learn more about neuroscience and important research being done in our region? Visit our current exhibit inside Pacific Science Center's Portal to Current Research. Portal to Current Research is a changing exhibit space showcasing the work of local scientists through a combination of digital media, graphics, objects, interactive displays and live programs. In the exhibit, Memory: Fragrant Flashbacks, explore the relationship between smell and memory. Smell stations will challenge you to recognize different odors and consider your emotional response to them. Use theSmell Synthesizer to create more than 500,000 unique scents to stir your memories! Learn how one local scientist conducted groundbreaking research related to how our brains detect and process smells, while another solved the mystery of how some people lost their sense of smell. This is the fourth and final exhibit in a series about memory funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.