Why study that, Erin Calipari?

Not every future scientist grows up dreaming of doing research. In fact, as I hope you are learning from this series, every scientist has a different journey. This can be heavily influenced by what, and more importantly, who, they are exposed to. Read how Dr. Erin Calipari, Assistant Professor of Pharmacology, found research through the people in her life.

-by Erin Calipari, Ph.D.

Some people plan their whole lives to be in a specific career. They make decisions starting in high school about what classes they need, what extracurricular activities they should participate in, and who they should network with to have the best chance of getting into the right school/program. I have always admired these people, but I was not that person. In fact, I was as far from that person as you could possibly be.

I am not from a family that prioritizes higher education. In fact, I am the first PhD in my entire family. That being said, my parents are some of the most intelligent and motivated people I have ever interacted with and their perspective on what is important in life has shaped both me as a person and how I approach science. My parents grew up poor, my dad in Pittsburgh, and my mom in a farming community in Missouri. They value hard and smart work over all else and taught me that no one owes you anything, but if you work hard you will put yourself in the best position for success. I have found this to be completely true and integral to my success; however, the most important thing that they taught me was that success can be fleeting, but the people in your life are not. Thus, being a genuinely good person and fostering personal relationships matters most. This means helping people when you have the opportunity, and doing good things because they are right, not because something is expected in return. This alone is why I am where I am today.

My dad told me once that if you find something you are passionate about you will never work a day in your life. I ended up in science because my Biology and Psychology classes were the classes that I thought were the “easiest”. Looking back now, they were easy because I was interested in the material and loved learning about it, so studying never felt like work. I loved learning about science, but had never considered actually being a scientist until in one of my classes my Professor, Jerrold Meyer, asked me if I had any interest in working in his lab. This simple interaction is how I ended up in Neuroscience research. My parents shaped how I interacted with people in my environment, but were unable to provide mentorship and guidance about careers in science or the prospect of graduate school. In fact, I ended up in graduate school because Dr. Meyer asked me if I was applying. I remember asking him “what is graduate school?”, which sounds funny now, but at the time was my reality. I loved my work in the Meyer lab, which focused on adolescent drug exposure and how it shaped neural responses to drugs of abuse later in life. I loved working with animals and became passionate about how drug addiction changed the brain to promote maladaptive behaviors With this in mind, Dr. Meyer work to help me get into the best graduate program for the development of my career. Looking back now, he selflessly did this. There was nothing in this for him, but my relationship with him and this effort on his part shaped both my life and my career as a scientist.

Dr. Meyer had written a strong letter that helped me get into Wake Forest University School of Medicine. I was in the Neuroscience program and the Pharmacology department that had one of the strongest track records for drug addiction work in the entire country. Also, their track record for training students to be in academia was phenomenal. Dr. Meyer had formed a relationship with me during undergrad and he knew exactly where I would excel. In graduate school I joined the lab of Sara Jones. In her lab we used analytical chemistry to understand how subsecond dopamine kinetics in reward-related brain regions controlled drug self-administration. Because this built upon my previous research, I joined the lab thinking I knew everything about the brain and how drugs of abuse acted on these systems. However, the most important thing I learned during graduate school was that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. What I mean by this is that my world view was so simple that I didn’t even know that there were some questions I should be asking. That these factors I hadn’t considered influenced the interpretation of the data I was collecting. During my time in the Jones lab, I worked with a postdoc, Mark Ferris, who I can say now is one of my good friends and collaborators. Dr. Ferris was there to point out what I had missed, put time into helping me recover from failure, and to push me to think about the big picture in my research. Again, along a similar theme, Drs Jones and Ferris put an enormous amount of time into my career, and asked for nothing in return.

From there I went to do a postdoc with Eric Nestler at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. This lab allowed me to continue focusing on my passion for addiction research and learn new technologies to expand my scientific questions. I got to learn new techniques, like calcium imaging and optogenetics, and expand the questions I was capable of answering with each additional technique I incorporated into my repertoire. The Neslter lab had an abundance of resources, but also had 20+ team members. This meant that there was no one assigned to me directly like there had been in graduate school, so now it was my turn to reach out for help and support when I needed it. What I found out is that all of the people who I had met over my career were genuinely friends. I called my old advisors regularly and they weighed in and gave advice on what I should be doing scientifically, acted as a sounding board for my ideas (good and bad!), and explained the political landscape of science. I also met new people who expanded how I thought about science and approached asking questions, including Dr. Nestler and other postdoctoral fellows at Mount Sinai. But, even more importantly, I got to give back to the community like it had given to me. I mentored students and technicians that went on to grad school and tried to give them the mentorship that I had received when I was younger.

Science is fantastic. Scientific discovery exciting. But the most satisfying thing about science is the people, and finding the people who you love as friends to work with. My passion for science meant that I often worked long hours and thought about my work often. This was not because I had to, but rather because I loved it. But even more important than my passion for science, were the personal relationships I formed during the process. I have picked advisors and labs that I had a personal connection with. For my entire career, coming to work has felt like hanging out with friends. These friends, have helped me to think beyond what I am capable of thinking by myself. They have helped me grow as a scientist and as a person. They were there to celebrate my successes and to help me fix my mistakes. The people in your life can change the way you do science, and change the way that you approach problems, and can help you make decisions that at the time, you may not know are critical to your continued success.

In my own lab, my work builds upon my previous experience and focuses on understanding how neural circuits in the brain are dysregulated by chronic drug exposure. We incorporate innovative technology to answer these questions and look for passionate, motivated, curious individuals to do so. Throughout my career, I have acquired both the technical expertise and the network of supportive people that allow me to answer big picture questions about the brain and how it guides behavior. Thus, in our lab, the focus isn’t just on the science, but also the individuals doing it. When I think about how I got here, it seems that I ended up here somewhat by accident, but I realize now that it was because I made decisions based on relationships with people who I genuinely wanted to work with. To me, this is the best part of science and is emphasized within my lab. I love what I do because I get to be a mentor to young students both personally and scientifically. Part of my job is to teach young scientists how to connect with the people that will support them and help them be more successful than they ever thought they could be.

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