Dr. Talia Lerner is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiology at Northwestern University. Dr. Lerner received her Bachelor of Science degree in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from University of California San Francisco.
“Talia’s lab is building on her previous work using transformative technologies to dissect dopaminergic connectivity motifs and in vivo activity patterns by applying these findings to understand how differences in dopaminergic signaling and circuit incorporation underlie differences in motivation and learning across individuals. Identifying the precise circuitry underlying these variations in behavior will ultimately allow her lab to identify principles that can impact human well being.”
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I often thought that I might like to be a scientist, but for a long time I wasn’t sure what kind. I just thought that the process of science — the scientific method — was a great way to go about answering questions and addressing my curiosity about the world. I liked the idea that by being a scientist, and using the scientific method, I could find out completely new things about the world. That said, I didn’t find lab classes in school very exciting. These “experiments” did not feel like experiments at all because the answers were already known and you would just get a bad grade if you messed up and couldn’t replicate a result properly. It took until I got real research experience in a real research lab to fall in love with science.
How did you discover your interest in the brain, and when was that?
As an undergraduate, I majored in biochemistry. I didn’t know much at all about the brain until I joined a lab, David Zenisek’s, that was studying the retina. Initially, I joined this lab because I was intrigued by a peculiar structure found in light-sensitive cells in the retina called the synaptic ribbon. Synaptic ribbons help photoreceptors continuously release neurotransmitters in a graded manner, rather than in bursts caused by action potentials like in other brain cells. While in the lab, doing biochemistry and cell biology experiments, I was exposed to electrophysiology and began learning a lot more about the brain, starting with studying the visual pathway. It was only after spending the summer after my junior year in college in the Zenisek Lab that I decided I would apply for neuroscience graduate programs that fall (instead of applying in biochemistry).
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in STEM?
Yes, of course. My first role model was probably my mom, who is a professor of psychology. Although I would poke fun at her for being in a “soft” science, really she showed me how a woman could succeed as a scientist while also being a great parent. She modeled a joy for her work that I aspired to, and that encouraged me to follow my passions.
Later in college, another influential role model was Joan Steitz. Joan is an incredibly impressive scientist and was very encouraging to me. I loved her biochemistry class, which I took my junior year of college, and another course she taught called “The Medical Impact of Basic Research,” which I took as a senior. That class was one of the first classes I took where we read and discussed the primary literature. In addition to teaching these classes, Joan was generous enough to share some meals with me and get to know me a bit at a point in my life when I did need some affirmation of my abilities and fitness for graduate school. She advocated for me to get into graduate school and I am forever grateful to her for helping me to get this first toehold in my field.
Once I got into graduate school at UCSF, I was inspired by the many excellent women in science I met there, including professors like Cynthia Kenyon, Patricia Janak, and Allison Doupe. I also learned a huge amount from my primary thesis mentor, Anatol Kreitzer, and probably just as much from my many excellent classmates. Since I’ve been working in science ever since, I find I encounter more and more scientists whom I admire. No one is perfect, but everyone is smart and can give you a little bit of wisdom.
Have you experienced any barriers or obstacles in your neuroscience and/or psychology journey?
In general, I think I’ve been relatively lucky and I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been given. That said, at each stage of my career, I found myself needing to be my own best advocate. It’s an uncomfortable thing to put yourself forward sometimes, especially when you are often at the same time combating imposter syndrome, but it’s really essential. No one will advocate for you as hard as you can for yourself. No one else is as invested in the outcome of your career efforts as you are. At each stage (entering grad school, applying for postdocs, applying for faculty positions), I had to recruit people to help me: a mentor to make a phone call on my behalf, an advisor who could nominate me for an award, a friend who could help me collect a last minute data point for a grant, etc.
I also went through a very difficult time in my personal life at the same time that I was applying for faculty positions and starting my lab. This situation was an obstacle that was not the fault of the system of science. However, we should keep in mind that many people do have life events that can interfere with their work at some point. The more our scientific institutions provide resources to help people through tough times in their life, the more we will keep great scientists in science and increase diversity and inclusion.
Here is my situation: I had my first child and my partner checked out. I was left as a single parent to juggle birth recovery, childcare, and preparation for and to travel to job interviews. I made it to Chicago and then had to spend a fair amount of time invested in a stressful and expensive divorce process that lasted about two years: the first two years of my faculty position. It’s hard for me to say how these first years in my position would have been different without this personal situation, but no doubt they would have been easier. What I would communicate to anyone out there struggling in their personal life is that you can and should ask for the help you need. I asked for all sorts of help with childcare, and all sorts of emotional support from both friends and mental health professionals to get me through this time. Remember as you pursue your career goals that, whatever happens, you deserve to be happy.
What is a typical day in your career?
As a technician, graduate student or postdoc, much of your day is spent in the lab physically doing experiments. Now as a professor I find some time for lab work, but my days can be a lot more varied. I spend a lot of time learning and talking to people, writing grants and papers, reading, and managing the organization of my lab. I go to seminars and conferences to learn about new, exciting developments in science. I get new ideas by listening to others, and learn about new tools or ways of thinking about a problem. I also present my own work and get feedback. Every day, I talk to other professors at Northwestern, to my lab, and to students in my graduate program about what they’re working on. Sometimes they are asking me for help and sometimes I am asking them. Science is a collaborative process. I write grants to raise money for our research, and I write papers to communicate our research to others. I occasionally teach graduate courses. I also do service for my department and graduate program, like serving on committees to hire new faculty members or to admit new students to our programs. My favorite thing about all these activities is that I keep learning new things everyday!
Please note that this interview was conducted in 2019. We have recently reformatted and made minor clarity edits to publish on the Simply Neuroscience Blog!