From Ballerina To Brain Scientist
By 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.