As part of Science Odyssey, we are interviewing a variety of STEM innovators to investigate pathways into STEM and to discuss the future of STEM learning and careers.
Dr. Catharine Winstanley is a behavioural neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia. She is a Professor in the Department of Psychology, and an Associate Member of the Division of Neurology. Her research is focused on understanding the neurobiological regulation of cognitive traits such as impulsivity and decision making, with the goal of using this knowledge to improve treatments for psychiatric disorders such as problem gambling and drug addiction.
What sparked your interest and eventual career in STEM?
I think most scientists share a general passion for science and a curiosity about how the world works, but there is normally some kind of personal reason for why they end up in their chosen fields. Perhaps that’s particularly true for those who study the neurobiology underlying mental illness, as so many of us have been touched by it in one form or another. For me, I remember being frustrated as a teenager by the lack of effective treatments for the psychiatric problems a close friend of mine was experiencing. I was starting a biochemistry degree at the time, but found myself constantly drawn to psychology and physiology courses. I became fascinated with how psychoactive drugs worked, both for good and bad, and that lead me towards a career in behavioural neuroscience.
What role does mentorship play in engaging youth in STEM?
Mentorship is a critical part of not only attracting youth to STEM, but also keeping them engaged. Mentors can provide opportunities for folks to get involved in a “hands-on” fashion, but they can also be important sources of encouragement and support. In today’s high pressure society, I think it’s easy for young people to doubt themselves, so that they are too apprehensive to try a career in STEM because they don’t think they will be good enough or able to make a meaningful contribution. Knowing that someone else believes they have potential can make all the difference. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that there are many different ways in which people can contribute to STEM fields, and it’s not always a straight line from A to B when you navigate your trajectory through life. My graduate students have followed a variety of different paths both before and after their PhDs. That diversity means they bring all kinds of world views to the lab. Science is an enormously creative process, and we need different perspectives and ways of thinking in order to see problems and results from all angles, and then make those important breakthroughs.
Did you have a mentor who supported you in your education/career pathway or otherwise?
I’ve been fortunate enough to have many different mentors at all stages of my career. I was lucky that my parents, while always encouraging and supportive, never put any pressure on me to be or do any particular thing. They left me lots of space to find my own passion, and believed in me enough to trust my judgement about what I wanted to do. I think that was invaluable. My PhD supervisor, Trevor Robbins, and the members of his lab were all also hugely influential in showing me how to actually be a behavioural neuroscientist. He’s still an absolute inspiration. One important thing that I don’t think gets said enough is that everyone, at all career stages, needs mentorship. One of the best things about being a scientist is that following the path of discovery inevitably takes you outside of your comfort zone, and pushes you to try things you haven’t done before. Even though I’m no longer a junior investigator, I definitely still rely on my colleagues and friends in the scientific community to help me navigate new challenges and situations that arise as my lab and I grow.
What did you want to be when you were a child? Did you plan your current career path?
When I was younger, I actually wanted to be a design engineer! I remember my mother struggling with our heavy old vacuum cleaner and wishing it had been better designed, and I thought that I could do that. I loved taking things apart (old cassette players that had broken down, random bits of our old car that my Dad was working on etc.) and seeing what was inside. I didn’t know what neuroscience was at that age, but I remember feeling a thrill of excitement when I first read a description of what it was in a university prospectus when I was a teenager. I never thought I’d be an academic scientist, though. After my PhD, I assumed I’d try and get a job in the pharmaceutical industry. But then one opportunity lead to another, and when I was offered an interview at UBC, I didn’t hesitate!
Tell us about your work with The Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. How does your job promote greater STEM learning or understanding?
The Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health was purposefully designed to facilitate translation between preclinical and clinical discoveries, such that complimentary programs of research are positioned within the same setting as advanced patient care. It’s a phenomenal place to work. My research explores the neural, neurochemical, and molecular basis of higher-order cognitive processes, such as impulse control and decision making, with a view to improving treatment options for addiction and compulsive disorders. Most of my research uses rats to study these cognitive processes, but my team and I have recently started translating our findings into human subjects. Active programs of research include:
- Testing novel treatments for iatrogenic impulse control disorders that arise in Parkinson’s patients treated with dopamine agonist therapy (ropinirole, pramipexole) using rat models of gambling and impulsivity
- Exploring the role played by neuroinflammation in mediating the effects of traumatic brain injury on impulsivity and addiction
- Investigating the synergy between gambling disorder and substance addictions at a neurobiological level
What do you think the future of STEM looks like in BC?
I think the future looks very bright! I do quite a bit of university lecturing at UBC, and so I can safely say there are some incredibly talented young people studying STEM in BC.
What is Science World’s role in promoting and supporting STEM learning and careers in BC?
I think somewhere like Science World is where children get their first exposure to some of the big ideas and discoveries in science. Growing up in London, I certainly remember my first visit to the Science Museum there, and being so excited about all the hands-on exhibits. My husband and I have taken our two young children to Science World and we all had a great time playing in the Wonder and Eureka galleries. Discovering science through play is probably one of the best ways to do it! But places like Science World also play an important role in allowing people of all generations access to the latest scientific breakthroughs. We are all life-long learners, after all!
About neuroscience at the University of British Columbia: UBC’s neuroscience program at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health is a hub for brain research and training. Formerly the Brain Research Centre, the new Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health brings together experts in the fields of neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry, and rehabilitation in a hub for training, research, and clinical care.