Interview

An Interview with Alie Caldwell of Neuro Transmissions

Chidiuso Ajaero


Introduction

    Alie Caldwell, better known as Alie Astrocyte, is the neuroscience-half of the two-person team of the increasingly popular YouTube channel, Neuro Transmissions. Launched in 2015, Neuro Transmissions brings information about neuroscience to a wide audience through social media [1]. The channel now has over 10,000 subscribers and teaches psychology in addition to neuroscience through Alie’s husband and co-presenter, Micah, also known as Micah Psych [1, 2]. Alie is a graduate of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT and PhD-candidate in Neuroscience at the University of San Diego, and she has written over forty episodes for SciShow, one of the most popular scientific channels on YouTube. Through Neuro Transmissions, Alie and Micah use humour and elements of popular culture to make neuroscience more engaging for the average viewer. As their slogan puts it, “It’s not rocket surgery, it’s brain science” [3]. I was lucky enough to be able to ask Alie some questions about neuroscience.
 

Chidiuso Ajaero (CA): “What inspired you to begin your channel?”

Alie Caldwell (AC): “Before I started graduate school, my partner did videos as a hobby, running his own YouTube channel. When I got to UCSD (University of California, San Diego), I discovered that the students here have a tradition of making a parody music video to advertise for their social event during the SfN (Society for Neuroscience) meeting in San Diego. My partner, Micah, offered to help with that year's video, which lead to the creation of Get Data. We had so much fun, we decided to enter the Brain Awareness Video Contest the following year, and then, started talking about doing more. At the time, when you searched “Introduction to Neuroscience" on YouTube, all you got were recordings of college lectures. I started wondering if we could take those same concepts from an introductory college course and break them down into 5-7 minute long videos, using animations to help clarify the message. In 2015, I wrote the Neuro 101 series and started releasing them in September. Since then, we've tried to put out a new video every two weeks.”

 

CA: “What are the goals of your channel?”

AC: “We always say that our goal is to ‘make the brain accessible for everyone.’ Neuroscience isn't really part of the public school curriculum (at least in the U.S.), but everyone has a brain, so the brain is a really great place to get people engaged with science. We're trying to bridge the gap between things people are familiar with - like pop culture and common disorders - and things they might not know much about, like neurotransmitters and fMRI. Our hope is that viewers can get enough information to answer a question they had, but also leave them interested in knowing more. We also want our work to reflect the fact that science is a human enterprise, done by human beings; we're not geniuses up in an ivory tower, but just people trying to do the best job we can do at answering the questions we see in the world around us.”

 

CA: “What is the role of neuroscientists in society?”

AC: “That's a good question. I would argue that the role of a neuroscientist in society is sort of up to the person. All scientists are trying to learn more about our world, so we can understand it and ourselves a little bit better. Neuroscientists can - and should - think not only about the positive implications of their work, like life-saving, new drug therapies, but also the negative, like the possibility of marginalizing already struggling members of society by "curing" conditions that aren't always seen as a disease. We are chipping away at the doorway of the human mind, and our work will have enormous repercussions in the future. To me, that means our role is to work on these questions as objectively and thoughtfully as we can while working to break down the barriers between our work and the public and carefully considering the ethical dilemmas our work might bring up.”

 

CA: “How did you become a neuroscientist?”

AC: “I've always wanted to be a scientist in some capacity, but for a long long time, I wanted to be an astronaut (I still do, really). It was when I got to college and took my first physics class that I realised I didn't really want to study engineering. At the same time, I was taking an introduction to psychology course with Dr. John Gabrieli as a humanities elective. I really love the stories of different famous patients, like H.M. and Patient Tan, and what psychologists and scientists have learned from them. The next semester I took an introduction to neuroscience class, and I just couldn't get enough. I've always loved biology and studying neurobiology means I get to study the biology of the mind.”

 

CA: “What are efficient ways that you believe can be used to increase public understanding of neuroscience?”

AC: “I think that digital media platforms offer incredible new opportunities to reach new audiences in really unique ways. I know a lot of neuroscientists who do outreach, but for many, it's limited to volunteering in classrooms, giving the occasional public lecture, and maybe writing some blog posts. That kind of outreach is important, and it's wonderful that scientists do it. But there are other options, too. For scientists who want to reach the people who think they're not interested in science, social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube offer a chance to showcase science and the scientist. You can use hashtags and tags to help people find your video and hopefully reach a few people who weren't looking for it but enjoy it anyway. So I encourage scientists to get familiar with social media, and try their hand at something new - like taking a picture of interesting pieces of lab equipment, explaining what it is on Instagram, or filming how they use an everyday object like nail polish in the lab and sharing the video on YouTube.”

 

CA: “How do neuroscientists interact with other scientists, neurologists and neurosurgeons?”

AC: “It sort of depends on the neuroscientist. I study basic science, which means I'm answering basic questions about neurobiology - I'm not working on clinical trials with human patients, but with mice and cells in a dish. That means that I interact with a lot of neuroscientists. I talk to them about protocols and techniques and ask for advice when I'm trying something new or when I'm looking for a new reagent {a substance used because of its chemical or biological activity}. Sometimes they train me, or I train them. We often travel to present our research at conferences, like SfN in November, and sometimes attend courses or symposia on specific topics related to our research. A lot of this also includes networking, which is meeting and getting to know others in the field, with the hopes that they might be a good resource for a job or a collaboration later on. People who work on more clinical stuff will often end up interacting more with neurologists and neurosurgeons. Some doctors have both an M.D. and a PhD., so they're a neurologist and neuroscientist. They might work together if the doctor's patients are part of a clinical trial; for example, if they are sharing tissue or data. But I personally rarely interact directly with M.D. - except for the ones who are my friends in real life, and then we're not talking about their patients!”

 

CA: “Your biography notes that your research focuses on astrocytes and neurodegenerative diseases.  What is your most interesting finding?”

AC: “I'm trying to understand how the proteins made by astrocytes are different in mice that have particular kinds of genetic mutations. In humans, these mutations cause serious neurodevelopmental disorders, including severe intellectual disability. So I isolate these mutant astrocytes in a dish, collect the proteins they spit out, and compare them to normal astrocytes. My work hasn't been published yet, so I can't say very much about it, but I can say that we have found some very interesting changes in mutant astrocytes, and I am working on figuring out whether or not those changes have a direct effect on neurons.”


References


  1. Caldwell, Alie and Caldwell, Micah (undated). About us. Neuro Transmissions. http://www.neurotransmissions.science/about-us/.

  2. YouTube, (undated). Channel Page for Neuro Transmissions. Neuro Transmissions. https://www.youtube.com/user/neurotransmissions/featured. Retrieved: 25 January 2018.

  3. Caldwell, Alie, (undated). About me. Alie Caldwell. http://www.alieastrocyte.com/ Retrieved: 25 January 2018.

Chidiuso Ajaero

Chidiuso Ajaero


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