Exploring the Journey of Discovery With Catherine Woolley

By Matt GolosinskiJune 17, 2015

This new feature highlights the research life of Northwestern scholars, situating their ideas against the backdrop of foundational experiences that helped shape their achievements.

These conversations combine personal reminiscences with reflections on science and innovation. Our inaugural column presents William Deering Chair in Biological Sciences Catherine Woolley, neurobiology. A celebrated scholar, Woolley researches how steroids regulate synaptic structure and function in the brain — particularly in the hippocampus, a region important for learning and memory, epilepsy, and anxiety and depression. The following is an edited transcript of our interview with her.

Why Science?

I always admired scientists. As a child growing up in a college town in Athens, Ohio, where my parents were humanities professors, I thought scientists were the smartest, most important people. My parents had nothing against science, but they had little to say about it either. I asked my mother once: “Mom, what is physics?” Her reply: “Oh, that’s just a bunch of wavy lines on machines.” I suspect she was thinking of an oscilloscope!

It Took a Village

The kids in Athens were raised by their own parents and by their friend’s parents. We had the sense that many adults were paying attention. We were taught, very early, that our job was to grow up and do something worthwhile. I never got the message that there were limits on my options, but I did get the message that I might not be good enough at some things. It was very important, then, to demonstrate that I was good enough — as determined by people with knowledge and experience. Encouragement did not come in the form of congratulations or awards. It came in the form of teaching me how to explain the value of what I was doing.

On the Value of Failure

If you are afraid of failure, you will be unlikely to try to solve hard problems. You’ll be more attracted to easy problems that won’t make much of a difference when solved.

The Process of Inquiry

As a kid, I had a chemistry set, a microscope, and an electronics set. I had a fantastic “rock identification computer,” which was entirely mechanical. I was meticulous in building an elaborate model train set. Now I understand that I was trying out ways of thinking and figuring out how things work. I was most attracted by the process of doing science, by the idea that things work a certain way and you can figure it out. When the lawn mower breaks, it breaks for a reason. You can open it up, tinker with it, and fix it. There’s a system there.

If you just want the answer to a question, then science may not be an enjoyable career, because most of science is systematically working toward an answer. Answers to big questions come rarely.

Most days are spent systematically reducing the number of possibilities, so if you don’t enjoy that process, you risk feeling frustrated. That’s one reason I’m committed to increasing the number of Northwestern undergraduates seriously engaged in research. To understand whether they are attracted to science as a profession, students must learn whether they enjoy the process of figuring out how the world works. Some will be hooked, as I was when I worked in a lab in college. Some will decide to seek another career.

Transdisciplinary Collaboration in Neuroscience

Neuroscience has taken a major leap in the past decade, largely through work at the interface between the biology of the brain and disciplines like chemistry, physics, engineering, and mathematics. Previously, neuroscience was constrained by the brain’s “geography” and so tended to focus on structures with neurons laid out in a fairly crystalline form: You could put an electrode into the brain and record activity or stimulate neurons in that place. But in other parts of the brain, the organization of neurons is much more complicated. Those locations contain a diverse mixture of cell types that send and receive signals far afield.

Now molecular genetics lets us identify and manipulate genetically targeted cells, opening a much greater degree of specificity in terms of visualizing, activating, and recording different classes of neurons. We can target neurons involved in learning and memory — even in specific learning events. This has tremendous implications.