“I wanted to be a volcanist”: Confessions of a Neuropharmacologist

When I sat down to interview my mentor, Dr.Cynthia Kuhn, the last thing I expected was for her to tell me she once aspired to be a volcanist. This accomplished neuropharmacologist was telling me that she had never really imagined she’d be at Duke with her own lab, it just wasn’t what she’d imagined for herself. Yet, here she was. In the span of thirty minutes, Dr.Kuhn went on to divulge the details of her unique path in science and dispense some truly heartfelt advice.  I’d like to share her story and exactly what I took away from the interview.

Dr.Kuhn’s interests in pharmacology can be traced as far back to her high school career. It began with an amazing physiology teacher that had imbued her with a love of the human brain. She started at Stanford with hopes of majoring in geology, only to be told that women were barred from the major, settling for biology instead. A biology major with interests in drugs and the brain, she took a pharmacology course that explored drugs’ effect on the brain in the context of the Swinging 60s (Dr.Kuhn made sure to specify she did not partake in the fun of the times). On the cusp of completing her Biology degree a year early, Dr.Kuhn knew she wanted to continue exploring pharmacology in her graduate studies.

Intent on continuing at Stanford, she set off on what turned out to be a wild goose chase. After bouncing back and forth between offices, she was finally told that Stanford was not taking any female applicants for their PhD programs. A beam of hope came through when someone finally recommended her to the doctorate program in pharmacology at Duke. It was March and the application was due in December; the situation was dire to say the least. However, Duke had a new training grant that required more people than they could supply so when Dr.Kuhn gave them a call, they were happy to take her on. She was taken under the wing of Dr.Saul Schanberg and completed her PhD in pharmacology at Duke with a post-doc at UNC-Chapel Hill. After her postdoctoral work, she landed a faculty position at Duke and fought her way to build the empire that is the Kuhn Lab today. If the success she found throughout her career wasn’t impressive enough, she also managed to come out on top in an age where science wasn’t too welcoming of women.

For the most part, she has studied the influences of sex and developmental stage on the underlying neuropharmacological and biological mechanisms of psychiatric disease. Her recent work has focused specifically on studying adolescents and this will include the project that she put me on for the summer. Her work, she states, has a public conscious to it. She does it knowing that it will have extremely important implication for the betterment of humankind and that the work itself and science as a whole must be communicated to the public, especially kids. To me, she perfectly encapsulated what it is to be a scientist: a human being capable of logic and reason that studies the natural world with an intent to enrich and better the state of humankind through their work.

When I asked her about mentors and the process of getting one, she gave me an interesting answer: there’s no secret to it. Dr.Kuhn told me that mentors are meant to be organic relationships. It’s not about who can go to the most networking mixers or talk to the most important people in a field. Rather, a mentor relationship comes about when one finds that they have a profound intellectual connection, “synergy” as described by Dr.Kuhn, with a superior that just happens to be interested in the same scientific material. Networking has never been my forte and I lack the social skills for it but what Dr.Kuhn told me really resonated. I don’t need to look for a mentor; I need to feel strongly about my science, communicate it well, and hope that someone will connect with me one day.

All in all, I learned one large thing from my interview with Dr.Kuhn: the path of a scientist is inconsistent and bendy to the point that it might induce nausea. A lot of the steps that she made forward sometimes hinged on saying the right thing at the exact moment or taking advantage of unconventional opportunities but the dedication with which she moved forward was consistent and I still see it burn within her. The only conclusion that I can draw is that as long I keep working and pushing for what I want I can’t fail. In addition, however, I have picked up a myriad of little lessons. The most important one definitely had to be recognizing that as a scientist, I’m doing my work with the hopes of bettering humankind and enriching it by communicating my work. This is the role that I want to keep alive in my work within the sciences. It’ll be a privilege and honor to keep learning from one of the most down-to-earth scientists at Duke.

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