Risky Research

An interview with Rachel Wilson, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology, Harvard Medical School. 


"Everything in research science is risky, like were setting out on an expedition into an unknown, uncharted place."

In high school, Rachel Wilson mistook research neuroscientist for an unattainable career.  Then she read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sachs, a clinical neurologist whose case histories humanize patients striving to preserve identity, beset by mysterious disorders that insult their nervous systems.

Sachs’ ode to the aberrant husband and his hat planted the bee in Wilson’s bonnet.

“Through his writings I realized that the brain, while incredibly complicated, is what makes us so very human. And it’s also modular. So if you lose a specific module, you lose a specific function or computation. And if that’s true, maybe you can study specific functions by studying certain brain regions.”

After studying olfactory systems at Harvard University, where she majored in chemistry, Wilson began training to become a neurophysiologist in Germany before moving to the University of California, San Francisco, for her Ph.D. She returned to olfaction in her post-doc work at the California Institute of Technology, focusing on how neurons integrate information from surrounding synapses.

At Caltech, she developed techniques to make in vivo recordings from a single, tiny neuron of an adult fruit fly brain—a feat that had eluded scientists for 30 years. In 2004, she joined the Department of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, where her lab seeks to come to terms with how odor stimuli are encoded in the electrical activity of specific groups of brain neurons.

Wilson was the 2007 winner of the Eppendorf and Science Prize for Neurobiology—awarded to scientists under the age of 35 for their contributions to neurobiological research using molecular and cell biology— for her essay describing her research into the neural circuitry underlying chemical perception.

Women, said Wilson, often forego research careers because they perceive it’s incompatible with family life. “That said, a lot of men opt out for the same reason. To make it work, you have to be a bit of a ‘super person.’”

“I just fell in love with the experience of poking a brain cell and watching it emit electrical signals in ‘real time’ as I prodded it….It can be like playing a video game, almost—you spin various dials and goof around with stimuli, and every time you show something interesting to the neuron, it speaks back to you, sometimes in an unexpected way! Most electrophysiologists are in the business because they just get a kick out of this.”

And she had some good mentors along the way. The first was in grad school, where “sometimes people have a bad experience, like the boss plays favorites, or is wrapped up in ego, or is distracted by things outside the lab.”

But her grad advisor “was an inspiring scientist. Data was the big reward for him, which meant you could set everything else aside. I was the only woman in the lab, but I knew gender wasn’t a problem. He’s also considerably older than me, and we have no outside interests or hobbies in common, but we just talked about data. And that was fine.”

Wilson’s post-doc advisor, another mentor, “was really good on the vision thing. He’d get people all fired up and excited just to be there in his lab, and made me realize if you get a critical mass of enthusiastic and curious people together in a lab, it can carry you far.”

“The important thing for me was the value of being trained in different labs. I learned two different styles—both were great, but quite distinct.”

Wilson’s management style is “pretty hands-on. I meet with each person in the lab individually for about an hour each week, in addition to our weekly group meeting, and also more casual interactions. Some people might think this is too much involvement, but I think and hope most people in the lab don’t mind it, and in fact people seem to seek me out for more interactions rather than trying to avoid me.”

“Maybe the key is that I’m always trying to convey my enthusiasm for each project, my interest in the underlying question, and my faith that each person is capable of making progress toward our goal. This is sincere on my part. When I need to deliver a negative message—like confronting somebody about being really unproductive—I tend to just pull them into my office, shut the door, and make it fast and businesslike. There’s never a need to humiliate somebody.”

“What’s important for me is keeping connected to the data, while giving people a sense of mission and what the goal is, and then hiring people I respect, and conveying my respect to them and treating people as I want to be treated.”

Those who know her say she is determined, optimistic, and comfortable with risk—qualities Wilson says “come with the territory.”

“Everything in research science is risky, like we’re setting out on an expedition into an unknown, uncharted place. I choose my lab staff based partly on their appetite for risk and their suitability for the tasks that lie ahead in our

“Lots of the models we have for interacting with others are inappropriate in the sense of professional management.” She cautions young and inexperienced lab heads against “trying to be friends with the people in their lab, because it can lead to favoritism and conflicts. I like to joke around and discuss non-science stuff, but ultimately I can’t be their friend.” To help maintain an institutional base of knowledge in her lab, “I very early on established a very long document we call the Lab Book of Knowledge. It’s a list of several hundred things, logistical information and our bread and butter tools—everything from running a complicated microscope, to where to get paper towels, to what documentation you need to give a particular company to get tax-exempt status.”

“Most days are pretty good, actually. One fun thing about this job is that, as a lab head, you get to create your own job description. A lot of variables that determine the pace of my day are within my control, at least over the long term, and I’ve been lucky enough to assemble a team of students and post-docs who are an absolute joy. I think most research biologists have high job satisfaction, and it’s easy to see why.”

Published In

What Are You Worth? Magazine Issue Cover
What Are You Worth?

Published: September 1, 2008

Cover Story