Despite the fact that it’s the center of all human thought and consciousness, much about the human brain, such as how it ages, or how it communicates with the rest of the body, remains unexplored. Constanza Cortes, PhD, hopes to change that. In this Faculty Spotlight interview, Cortes talks to us about her research on the molecular and cellular changes that occur in the aging brain, how seemingly unrelated systems such as skeletal muscle may influence brain aging, and discusses how her love of Latin dancing (including competing in the 2015 World Latin Dance Cup) keep her busy when she’s not at work.
What are your responsibilities within the Neurology Department? What does your average work day look like?
I am research faculty, which means I spend most of my day doing neuroscience research in my lab. My field of interest is understanding how our brain ages, using animal and human stem cell models to understand the cellular and molecular changes in the aging brain. This is particularly fascinating as age is the most common risk factors for many neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease. If we can identify pathways that modulate aging of the central nervous system, we may be able to develop therapies for Alzheimer’s disease and help our brain heal itself.
My days are usually spent split between the lab bench and writing. At the bench I perform cutting-edge experimental protocols with the assistance of my research team. As a principal investigator, my role further includes writing a lot of research grants to obtain the funding necessary to carry out our work. Writing manuscripts and publishing papers is also a huge part of my day to day, which also require some graphic design skills to generate manuscript figures and graphical abstracts. I also coordinate with our collaborators from other institutions, assist with several science outreach initiatives both locally and nationally, and communicate with my network to maintain a presence on the field. It is a delicate act to balance working both at the bench and at the desk, but they are both fundamental parts of a scientist’s life and I enjoy them both equally.
How did you first get interested in neuroscience?
I took my first neuroscience class during my undergraduate junior year. I fell in love with the complexity of the human brain, from the variety of cellular types that coexist in the central nervous system to the formation and maintenance of synapses. I was fascinated by the seeming contradiction of a cell that is so important for making us who we are (neurons) to be formed during our early development and then be unable to be regenerated! Of course, the field has changed a lot since those days and now we know that the brain has a lot more plasticity than we originally thought, but that paradox sparked my interest and I have not stopped loving it since. I joined the instructor’s lab and worked on astrocyte communication, which initially got me interested in how astrocytes, neurons and microglia talk to each other within our brains. Particularly, how are these conversations altered in neurodegenerative disease? What happens between cells that leads to Alzheimer’s disease?
The brain is one of the most complex organs in our bodies, and yet there is still so much we do not know about it. Neuroscience is a fascinating field of research, and it integrates so many aspects of biomedical science including electrophysiology, cellular biology, physiology, cognitive neuroscience and psychology. I expect there are many great discoveries yet to be made in neuroscience, and it is my goal to contribute to our knowledge of the inner workings of the human brain in both health and disease.
What do you enjoy most about your current work?
The potential of the unknown. My current research is on the cutting edge of how we understand brain-to-rest of the body communication, and as such represents a largely unexplored field of investigation. It is akin to an astronaut first landing on the moon, or a deep-sea diver adventuring into the Mariana Trench for the first time. Nobody has been here before, and therefore everything we discover is new.
Hand in hand with this, is the ability to share this discovery with other people. Other scientists, my trainees, and the large public! Training junior investigators is a large part of what I do, and I am particularly interested in breaking down barriers to enhance diversity and improve the representation of minorities in science. As such, good mentoring of students and postdocs is a personal goal of mine, and I enjoy training and supporting upcoming generations of scientists very much.
The School of Medicine recently accepted you into its Duke LEADER program, which will begin this spring. How did you decide to join this program, and what do you hope to get out of it?
My goal has always been to lead an academic research program. I have always sought training on skills you do not necessarily learn during your PhD, include leadership styles, conflict management, and emotional awareness. As a faculty member here at Duke, it is my responsibility to lead a team of junior researchers, and the LEADER program was the perfect fit. Aimed at junior faculty just starting their research programs, this initiative offers insight into leadership and team building as well as direction on how to develop and manage a scientific laboratory or research program, how to improve productivity, and how to harness creativity and innovation. I learned about this program through the Office of Underrepresented Faculty Development, a great initiative here at Duke to inform incoming faculty of opportunities for training, funding and career development. Furthermore, I was supported by the chair of my department Dr. Rich O’Brien, who highly encourages junior faculty to apply for awards, fellowships and training opportunities like this one.
In addition to the workshops offered through the LEADER program, I am also very much looking forward to connecting with other faculty here on campus, as having a supportive network of peers at a similar stage in their careers is also an essential milestone towards academic success.
You also attended the 2017 Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Washington, DC, where your research was selected as a SfN “Hot Topic.” What was the subject of your research, and how did it advance our understanding of the field?
I presented my recent work outlining a potential role for muscle protein quality control on brain aging. This work is completely novel, suggesting that our brains do not exist (and age) in isolation, but rather as an integrated part of a physiological system. My research represents a cutting edge approach to our understanding of brain plasticity and aging, as it suggests that distant tissues such as skeletal muscle may be fundamentally influencing the rate at which our brain ages. As the largest international meeting in the field, SfN is a wonderful opportunity to discuss my work with the neuroscience community at large, and I would highly encourage trainees at every level to attend and present.
You’ll be participating in a Society for Neuroscience seminar where you’ll discuss how to give and assess academic chalk talks. How did your involvement in this seminar come about? What’s one piece of advice you can share for improving one’s communication in an academic setting?
This is a great example of the power of networking and serendipity: during the aforementioned 2017 Society for Neuroscience meeting, I attended a dinner hosted by one of my mentors. In the cab drive to the restaurant, I sat next to a senior faculty member from the University of Washington, whom I had never met before. As we began to chat, I mentioned I had hosted an academic workshop on How to Prepare Chalk Talks while still a postdoc at my previous institution came up, and she mentioned she was organizing a career development panel for the Society for Neuroscience on precisely this topic! Furthermore, she was looking for junior faculty who had recently gone through the academic job market, so we could speak directly to trainees on the process of creating and delivering a successful chalk talk. Voila!
Science communication is something I am quite passionate about, and it is something we scientists struggle with. Communicating our science to non-scientist audiences, or even to scientists from a different field, can be quite challenging, and is it a skill I strongly believe we should all cultivate. I highly encourage junior trainees to engage in science communication: give seminars (within and outside of your department), attend open-mike nights, and participate in science outreach! You will become a better scientist and a better communicator for it. This will also change the way you write grants: your reviewers will sometimes not be experts in your field, and being able to explain the complex biological processes we study in terms everybody can understand makes a reviewer much more likely to enjoy reading it!
What passions or hobbies do you have outside of Duke?
My biggest hobby is Latin dancing. I discovered salsa dancing as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and have been dancing ever since. I have been a member of several showcase and competitive performance teams, both in San Diego and in Chicago, and I was very excited to find that the Latin dance community is also quite active here in the Raleigh/Durham Area. The benefits of exercise are unquestionable, especially as it relates to cognitive function, and I can attest that I have truly become a better, happier scientist since I began my career as a dancer. It also taught how to manage my time well, as extended practice hours could impact my productivity if left unchecked. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is key for any scientist at all levels of their career, and finding a hobby you are passionate about and sometimes forces you to come out of the lab (or step away from your computer) will refresh you and allow you to come back to work rejuvenated and full of fresh new ideas.
(this article originally appeared in January 2018 on the Duke Neurology Department’s website. Read that version here.)