Neighborhood Scientists Organize First Nisi Pub Talk

January 13, 2019

The Weill Cornell Post-Doctoral Association is sponsoring its first Post Doc Pub Talk, a Science Outreach Event, at Nisi on January 22. The organizers hope it will become a series of discussions where Island-based researchers bridge the distance between the growing “science community” on the Island and the rest of the community.


The first talk, entitled Beautiful Minds, Brain Research From Cell Culture to Patients, will feature two researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine discussing what they are doing in the lab and the clinic to advance the scientific frontier in psychiatric disease.


One of the organizers, Heidi Meyer, an Island resident for over two years, says the inaugural speakers, Michael Notaras, and Reed Maxwell, were chosen for this first event because they are very engaging, do compelling research, and their subject, mental illness, is something everyone is familiar with. She says “it’s a good way to start the series.” The intent, according to Meyer, is not to share data slides or show off science jargon, but is to introduce themselves to the Island; “these are the big questions we are looking at and they may apply to your life.”


Notaras works with stem cells to make “mini-brains” and is endeavoring to identify markers for schizophrenia that can appear very early on, possibly in utero. Schizophrenia is characterized by thoughts or experiences that seem out of touch with reality, including disorganized speech or behavior, and decreased participation in daily activities. Difficulty with concentration and memory may also be present.


Meyer says, “[Notaras] works with cells, not people.” The idea is that some of us may have a predisposition for schizophrenia and with awareness of the presence of the marker, could possibly seek out treatment before the appearance of serious symptoms. Meyer cautions that presence of this marker wouldn’t mean you will actually get the disease.


Reed, on the other hand, is a psychiatrist who does work with patients. His work is geared at how to help people who have borderline personality disorder – a disease characterized by symptoms of emotional instability, feelings of worthlessness, insecurity, impulsivity, and impaired social relationships – and the degrees to which it can manifest itself. Meyer says, “It’s much more prevalent than people realize.”


Meyer will facilitate questions at the end of the talk.


Meyer studies teenage mice and is researching how mice discriminate between fear and safety, and is trying to figure out how that happens in the brain. That knowledge will inform how anxiety, fear and stress develop and how we can treat it, and tailor that treatment to young people. “Now, the treatment is tailored for adults. So people go through these developing years without getting what they need.”


Teenagehood (for better or worse, depending) lasts three weeks for mice. According to Meyer certain hallmarks of adolescence are “remarkably similar” between people and mice. She says mice prioritize hanging out with same-age peers over their parents, they explore their environments and take more risks during that phase of life. “You assume you develop linearly,” explains Meyer, “but very specific things happen in your brain [during adolescence] that are not a linear step in a maturation process.”


Parents of teenagers can relate to Meyer’s thesis that the teenage experience is distinct, “Teenagers experience their environment in a different way that will allow them to

collect a lot of information so when they become adults they have a lot of background that they can use. I find that really interesting.”


Meyer poses outside Weill Cornell Medical College Building with co-organizers and neighbors Keri Callegari (left) and Anna Schlusche (right)


To set this up, Meyer approached Alex Razaghi, of Nisi. “He loves the idea of engaging the community,” she said. The event will be in the windowed annex space. Besides Meyer, Anna Schlusche and Keri Callegari, also Island residents, are spearheading this effort and have the backing of the hospital’s postdoctoral association. Meyer says that the Island is an “amazing environment for many of us, in that it’s quiet and safe after working all day in the City.”


They have future plans for additional talk., “We’ll have this first event, and based on the feedback we get, we will adjust,” says Meyer. Regarding the pairing of alcohol with the event, Meyer explains, “That tends to be how scientists do their best engagement, with a glass of wine.”


Also, “Nisi does have a very good happy hour.”


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